California lawmakers rejected a moratorium last year (and again this year) on hydraulic fracturing at oil and gas drilling sites while regulators decide how to oversee the potentially dangerous, and largely unregulated, extraction process.
Senate Bill 4, passed last September, initiated the state’s first fracking regulatory process, which critics deemed slow and riddled with loopholes. The state Department of Conservation slapped together some “emergency” regulations that took effect at the beginning of the year while it worked to complete final regulations by its January 1, 2015, deadline.
Now, lawmakers have bumped that deadline six months. That’s when the State Water Resources Control Board is supposed to finish its criteria for judging plans drillers will have to write and submit to the Conservation Department for a permit when they are working near groundwater, according to KQED in Northern California.
The state is trying to get a handle on a decades-old drilling technique that has been updated in the 21st Century to include toxic chemicals, high volumes of pressurized water, sand and hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid. Drillers are reanimating old, abandoned wells and tapping sites once thought inaccessible.
The industry has consistently argued that there is no proof that fracking is a danger, and existing industry standards provide adequate safety for people and the environment. They do not want full disclosure of the chemicals used, claiming they are trade secrets, and decry any increase in bureaucratic interference.
Critics say fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sink holes. They want full disclosure of fracking operations and sufficient public warning before drilling commences, at the very least. At best, they want a moratorium.
The state is working on an Environmental Impact Report, due July 1, 2015, that some fear could be used to blunt criticism of individual fracking operations in sensitive areas. Senate Bill 4 gave regulators a so-called “magic wand” to waive filing of an individual environmental report if a prior assessment were available.
According to KQED, the bill passed by lawmakers last month specified that each fracking permit will be assessed on an individual basis.
A new draft of the regulations being worked on by the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources was released last month and a 45-day process of public comment began. The political system, laden with oil and gas industry money and buffeted by myriad stakeholders in and out of government, is undulating as it seeks equilibrium for its fracking policy.
Optimists among the skeptics, like Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group, see some progress in fixing a deeply flawed SB 4. “It’s not the most desirable thing, but we are getting relatively good public disclosure about fracking for the first time,” he told KQED.
But critics who thought nothing short of a moratorium on fracking would protect the environment and people’s health have found little to buoy their spirits. The Center for Biological Diversity titled its press release about the new draft regulations in June, “New California Fracking Rules Let Oil Industry Hide Dangerous Chemical Use—Weak Regulations Won’t Protect Health, Promote Transparency.”