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Sacramento Needs to Regulate Fracking

SB 4, the only fracking bill that's still alive in the state legislature, is a weak piece of legislation, but it's better than nothing.

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Earlier this year, it looked as if state lawmakers might finally get around to regulating hydraulic fracturing, the fossil-fuel extraction method that involves shooting huge amounts of water and toxic chemicals deep into the earth to release otherwise-trapped deposits of natural gas and oil. Legislators even introduced bills that would have put a moratorium on fracking until it could be proven safe for the environment. But thanks to intense lobbying by Big Oil and Gas interests and the California Chamber of Commerce, all but one of those bills failed to move forward in the legislature. The only bill left — SB 4 — is a weak piece of legislation authored by state Senator Fran Pavley of Los Angeles — and it might not win approval either.

Legislators bowing to the will of Big Business is nothing new, of course, but what happened to fracking regulations this year is nonetheless remarkable considering the public's feelings on the subject. Last week, the Public Policy Institute of California released a new poll showing that a majority of state residents — 51 percent — oppose fracking, compared to 35 percent who favor it. And even proponents of fracking want stricter regulations — 62 percent. The PPIC poll followed one commissioned in June by USC and the Los Angeles Times, which showed that 58 percent of Californians supported a moratorium on fracking, while 70 percent said that, at minimum, they wanted tougher rules.

Most Republicans favor fracking, while moderate Democratic politicians, like Governor Jerry Brown, along with independents, have been wary about regulating the extraction process out of concerns about slowing the state's economic recovery. They note that fracking has spurred a natural gas boon nationwide, particularly in Rocky Mountain states, creating jobs and lowering prices.

But the recent polls show that moderate Democrats and independents are badly out of step with the public when it comes to fossil fuels. The PPIC poll showed, for example, that a supermajority of Californians — 65 percent — want elected officials to act immediately to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and don't want to wait for the economy to recover further. And instead of fracking wells to extract oil and natural gas, the public — 79 percent — wants to increase investment spending on solar and wind power.

Even some industry executives support fracking regulations. Anthony Earley, chairman and CEO of PG&E Corp., told the San Jose Mercury News editorial board last week that he believes oil and natural gas companies should have to publicly disclose the chemicals that they inject into the earth and should be required to test groundwater for contaminants both before and after fracking a well. Earley's comments were noteworthy considering the fact that PG&E is a major purchaser of natural gas. "I think we ought to be totally transparent about it," Earley told the Mercury News about fracking. "I think we ought to have stringent drilling regulations so that everybody's comfortable."

Environmentalists and fracking opponents, meanwhile, got some more good news late last week when the US Bureau of Land Management announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts of fracking in California. The bureau's decision followed a court ruling earlier this year that found that the federal agency had violated environmental laws when it leased public land in Monterey County to oil companies for fracking before assessing the ecological impacts.

But public sentiment and court rulings may not have the same influence in Sacramento that lobbyists for Big Oil and Gas enjoy. As environmental journalist Dan Bacher noted recently, the Western States Petroleum Association — the trade industry group for major oil and natural gas interests — spent at least $2.3 million in the first six months of this year to lobby legislators and other state officials. It was the most spent by any interest group. The association's members include Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Tesoro Refining, and Venoco, among others. The association, along with the state Chamber of Commerce, successfully blocked the other fracking bills earlier this year, and now opposes Pavley's SB 4.

And while some environmental groups also oppose SB 4 because it isn't tough enough, the bill is better than nothing. For example, it requires a comprehensive environmental impact study, and it would force oil and gas companies to disclose the types of chemicals they use to state regulators. However, it could still keep such information from the public by claiming it represents "trade secrets."

SB 4, in short, is far from perfect. The smart move would have been a moratorium until fracking can be proven safe. But such a ban seems unlikely at this point, considering the juice Big Oil and Gas wield in Sacramento. And so SB 4 might be the best we can hope for right now.

And after passing the bill, the legislature should also take a close look as soon as possible at fracking offshore. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that oil companies have been quietly fracking underwater wells for years with little to no oversight from federal authorities. The AP also reported that some known fracking chemicals are toxic to fish larvae and crustaceans — bottom-dwellers most at risk from oil drilling in the ocean.

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