California has allowed oil and gas producers to employ the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, for years with virtually no regulation. After an array of legislative proposals to halt this arguably dangerous drilling technique, or at least make it transparent, failed to win legislative approval, lawmakers gave thumbs up to the last remaining bill, which gives the appearance of regulation without actually assuring that fracking is safe.
Energy companies say they aren’t happy with Senate Bill 4 because it impedes their ability to chase, unrestrained, after the estimated 15.3 billion barrels of oil lurking in the Monterey Shale and elsewhere. Environmentalists are apoplectic because, they say, it fails to deliver safeguards against groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sinkholes.
The bill allows fracking to continue unabated until 2015 while regulations are drafted. A mandated statewide environmental impact report on the practice isn’t due until July 2015. And while it does require frackers to reveal what toxic materials they are injecting into the ground, they can keep secret details on the mix of the toxic brew. Critics find public notification provisions to be ineffectively weak
“This bill is just a permitting, monitoring, notification and disclosure bill with a study thrown in,” according to Lauren Steiner, an environmental activist who led a petition drive to have Democratic state Senator Fran Pavley withdraw her bill. “Telling someone when you're going to frack, where you're going to frack and what chemicals you are going to use is like a murderer telling you, ‘I'm going to shoot you on your front porch tomorrow at noon using an AK-47.’ At the end of the day, you're still dead. And do we really need any more studies to show us the harms of fracking?”
Fracking critics have been agitating for rules that would force the energy industry to identify where they are fracking, give notice where they intend to frack and disclose what toxic chemicals they are pumping into the ground with millions of gallons of pressurized water. The industry claims environmentalists are trying to block fracking by erecting bureaucratic barriers and force them to reveal trade secrets about the toxic chemicals they inject into the ground.
Among those amendments was one that allows the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to waive requirements for environmental impact analyses of proposed drilling sites before approvals are granted. The nonprofit organization CREDO said that provision effectively exempts frackers from the landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). DOGGR has been accused by critics of bending over backwards to accommodate fracking companies.
Various lawsuits to block fracking, including one brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, Environmental Working Group and Sierra Club, are wending their way through the legal system.
Organizations like MoveOn.org have called for Governor Jerry Brown to veto the bill. “There's only one prudent next step to protect California's water, air, and climate—for Governor Brown to place an immediate moratorium on fracking, acidizing, and other unconventional methods of exploiting fossil fuels,” Victoria Kaplan, campaign director at MoveOn.org, said in a statement.
Governor Brown has expressed an eagerness to sign the legislation.