Environmentalists turn on California's first real fracking law

 

Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group — the D.C.-based nonprofit that helps the green-conscious decide which sunscreen to wear and what to wash their dishes with — was rallying California followers to contact state legislators in support of a bill to regulate fracking. The sun was about to set on California’s 2012-2013 legislative session without a single new law on the issue, despite an industry poised for potential boom on the Monterey Shale — 1,750 square miles that extend from Central to Southern California containing two-thirds of the country’s estimated shale reserves. Two proposed bills had already died; one that would have imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing got just 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly.

Only Senate Bill 4 still had a chance; it had cleared the Senate and was headed for the Assembly. And though some moratorium-or-bust environmentalists thought the bill didn’t go far enough, EWG — whose staff had worked for four years on the legislation — remained ardently behind it.

So did several other large and influential environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters, and all for the same reason: “It will go farther than any other law or regulation in the country,” EWG President Ken Cook wrote in an email blast to subscribers. “The public will be able to see a list of the chemicals used even if a drilling company claims it's a trade secret.”

Plus, the bill had been authored by none other than State Senator Fran Pavley, the legislator who, while in the Assembly, wrote two of California’s landmark climate laws: One, in 2001, to set stringent emissions standards for cars and trucks and another, the iconic AB 32, to reduce greenhouse gases coming out of everything else. The Democrat from the north coast of Los Angeles County has a knack for realpolitik advances in environmental lawmaking; a bill with her name on it typically gets rubber-stamped with the environmental community’s blessing. 

frakcjob.JPG
Water tanks preparing for a hydraulic fracturing job. Photo by Joshua Doubek.

Less than a week later, however, everything had changed. SB 4 had gone into the Assembly and, under pressure from both the oil and gas industry and Governor Jerry Brown, it came out an altered beast, apparently with a two-year grace period for any kind of wild well stimulation the oil and gas industry deemed necessary to force hard-to-access heavy oil from the Monterey Shale’s deep Miocene rock. By the time the amended bill went back to the Senate on September 11, EWG had withdrawn its support, as had every other environmental group that had backed it before. Pavley was now the proud sponsor of a fracking bill that every last environmentalist, save the ones in the Democrat-dominated legislature, hated. But at least it was one that the Governor was likely to sign.

In a way, the trouble began when Pavley expanded SB 4 to regulate not just hydraulic fracturing but another process more useful on the Monterey Shale called acid matrix stimulation. “Acidizing,” as the process is sometimes called, employs hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the rock instead of breaking it up. And if you thought fracking chemicals were bad, consider that a drop of hydrofluoric acid can penetrate your skin and kill you. As Briana Mordick writes on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, “At low concentrations, such as those used in the oil and gas industry, the symptoms of exposure may be delayed by up to a day, meaning that extensive damage may be done before the person seeks medical attention.”

EWG’s man up at the California Capitol in Sacramento, Bill Allayaud, says that while the Western States Petroleum Association — the state’s busiest lobbyist in 2012 — was always gunning for the bill (“they wanted to bust it open,” he says), lobbying activity picked up last summer when Pavley got wise to industry techniques and expanded it to include acid jobs.“ That struck a nerve,” says Allayaud, whose organization pointed out, in 2011, that neither fracking nor acidizing is a new thing in California. “It turns out that some companies have been acidizing wells like crazy,” Allayud says.

They’ve been fracking, too, with little oversight and even fewer rules. In 2011, EWG went to the state’s regulatory authority, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), and said, “Tell us where a well was fracked. Tell us when a well failed.” DOGGR — which everyone pronounces “dogger” — “could not do that,” Allayaud says. He points to Jeremy Miller’s 2010 reporting in HCN as a demonstration of the data gaps. “Jeremy asked where does the water go, and where does it come from (in fracking operations)? He got pretty far, but it’s hard to go further, because the data doesn’t exist.” Pavley’s bill was crafted to make sure that in the future, regulators could answer those questions, and many more — including exactly what chemical brews were being used in the process.

And some of that good stuff remains. “The bill still has powerful components that make it the strongest fracking bill in the nation,” Allayaud says. “It requires public disclosure of trade secrets. It requires groundwater monitoring before and after both acid and frack jobs. It really does prevent DOGGR from being too tied to the industry; it forces them to represent the public and not just Chevron and Occidental.” It still calls for a comprehensive environmental review of well stimulation treatments by 2015, and the issuance of final regulations when that study’s done.

But now there's also a fuzzy line stating that DOGGR “shall allow” fracking and acidizing until it issues final regulations in 2015, which depending on your interpretation may or may not mean that, for the next two years, oil and gas producers can proceed as usual. “We thought it was potentially damaging enough that we wanted to send a message that we’re not happy,” Allayaud says.

The Governor, on the other hand, is plenty happy. And Pavley is making the rounds with reporters defending a bill that, while far from perfect, at least brings into the open what’s been happening under the radar: "Without SB 4, there will be no public disclosure of chemicals, no groundwater monitoring and no regulation of acidizing, and the oil companies will continue to be able to frack without a permit or any public accountability whatsoever," she told E&E Energy Wire. "The world won't be perfect" because of SB 4, "but it will be a whole lot better."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.