California’s New Fracking Law Divides Environmentalists

September 27, 2013

Over the past year, legislators in Sacramento introduced a flurry of bills in an effort to study or tighten the leash on fracking in California.

Most efforts failed, but in mid-September Gov. Jerry Brown state Sen. Fran Pavley’s SB-4, which regulates two methods of extracting tightly-bound oil in California’s Monterey Shale formation — hydraulic fracturing and acidization jobs. The legislation also requires a study of the risks of both these processes.

“The purpose of SB-4 is to shine light on these practices, “ Pavley told Bay Nature. “This is a first step toward greater transparency, accountability and protection of the public and the environment.”

SB-4 is the first law in California to address fracking and other oil well stimulation methods. Oil companies are required to obtain fracking and acidization permits, notify nearby property owners in advance of any activities, and disclose a list of the chemicals they plan to use. A statewide study of fracking and acidization’s potential impact on air and water quality is also required. And the state must issue detailed regulations for permits by 2015.

In a statement, Gov. Brown said the law, which takes effect in January 2014, “establishes strong environmental protections and transparency requirements.” Yet the bill has no shortage of critics.

The critics

The oil industry says the legislation goes too far, and environmental groups are divided in their reactions to the final version of Pavley’s bill.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that with SB-4’s passage, California has the toughest regulations of fracking and other energy production technologies in the nation.

“While SB-4’s requirements went significantly farther than the petroleum industry felt was necessary, we now have an environmental platform on which California can look toward the opportunity to responsibly develop the enormous potential energy resource contained in the Monterey Shale formation,” Reheis-Boyd said.

The American Lung Association, the Environmental Defense Center and San Francisco Baykeeper are satisfied with the legislation. But other groups — namely the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) — want nothing less than a moratorium on fracking and other unconventional oil-extraction methods.

“This bill will not protect Californians from the enormous threats of fracking pollution,” said CBD’s Kassie Siegel. “Fracking poses unacceptable risks to the air we breathe, the water we drink and our climate. We’ll keep working to end this inherently dangerous activity in our state.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Working Group (EWG) withdrew support following last-minute amendments to SB-4 that they argue could allow the state to approve fracking permits next year under rules that are more permissive than existing environmental laws.

“While there are some very positive aspects of the bill, EWG couldn’t support it in the end because of problematic last-minute amendments that could prevent the state from taking necessary steps to protect the public and the environment,” says Bill Allayaud, EWG’s director of governmental affairs in California.

What happened to the moratorium?

Pavley said she shares the desire for a moratorium, but couldn’t gather the votes in Sacramento.

“Originally, I wanted a moratorium,” Pavley said. “But then it came out that fracking and acidization have been going on without legislation and would still go on and we wouldn’t know anything about it, except what we read in the media.”

Pavley recalls holding hearings in which the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR),was unable to supply a full accounting of what chemicals were being used, where waste was being stored, and which wells had been reformatted for fracking and acidization. She said disclosure requirements were paramount.

“So, we had to do that at a  minimum,” Pavley said. “If fracking is already going on in California that needs to be exposed and we need to create transparency.”

She added that SB-4 was expanded, over DOGGR and the oil industry’s objections, to include acidization, a technique that may prove to hold more promise in California than hydraulic fracturing. In acidization, the chemical reaction of an acid, often a mix of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids, is used to dissolve minerals in the formation.

“Wells in Ventura County are already using large amounts of acid,” said Pavely, who represents Agoura Hills in Southern California.

SB-4 requires that a list of all chemicals being used be posted on a public website, beginning January 1, 2014.

“I think that’s critically important,” Pavley said. “People will say, ‘Oh, the trade secrets are still hidden,’ but not really. DOGGR will have the secret formulas, and that information will be given to state and local air and water agencies, and local municipalities. And any doctor could request, without signing any confidentiality agreements, access to full volume metric amounts, if have a patient with a  disease or condition that could be related to these activities.”

Pavley adds that her legislation does not prevent local or state governments from authorizing stronger regulations.

Pavley believes SB-4 will ensure accountability, and in the event of spills, leaks or contamination, help establish who was responsible. A 30-day notice to nearby residents before any well stimulation activities occur allows for water quality monitoring before and after drilling and requires a plan for wastewater disposal.

“It was one of those things that had to be done to make sure our groundwater is not being polluted,” Pavley said.

She said her bill will help provide information that will help the public be better informed about these activities in California.

“I think we need the data,” Pavley said. “So, I consider it a first step.”

For more on Bay Nature’s fracking series:

Check out Bay Nature Magazine’s feature story on fracking in the October 2013 issue.

Read our first story in Bay Nature’s fracking series: In condor country comes a California oil boom.

Read our second story in the series: Above the Monterey Shale, farmers worry fracking will destroy the land.

Read our third story in the series: Fracking the land of the kit fox, and it’s fellow desert natives. 

Read our fourth story in the series: How the Monterey Shale came to be

Sarah Phelan is a contributor to Bay Nature and is leading our coverage on Extreme Energy in the Monterey Shale

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