So what do politicians and oil lobbyists talk about when they gather at a posh restaurant days before a vote on fracking legislation critical to accessing 15 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale?
Sacramento Bee reporter Laurel Rosenhall wasn’t there, so she doesn’t know for sure. But she does know what was on the menu September 4 at the exclusive Sacramento eatery called The Kitchen and that the bill for 12 lawmakers and two aides came to nearly $13,000.
Five days later, the state Senate passed controversial Assembly Bill 4 on a 25-11 vote, the Assembly followed suit the next day, 48-25, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it.
The restaurant has one seating of 50 guests per evening. The Kitchen’s kitchen is entirely open, inviting guests to wander in and through on their way to the wine cellar or pantry. Most of the diners get to sit at u-shaped tables around the food preparation area. It is decidedly a step up from Benihana.
A review this month in Sacramento magazine calls it the “holy grail of fine dining in the city. . . . Wonderfully distinctive and eyebrow-raisingly expensive.”
The reporter did not suggest a quid pro quo for the lawmakers’ votes, although cuisine at The Kitchen, according to some foodies, is to die for.
But it is possible they discussed hydraulic fracturing, the virtually-unregulated oil extraction process that involves injecting large amounts of pressurize water, sand and chemicals into the ground to crack open deposits that are difficult to access. AB 4 is the first California legislation to regulate the practice, and it was assailed by environmentalists and even some of its earlier supporters after being weakened considerably in the final days before passage.
Critics say the law fails to deliver safeguards against groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sinkholes, to name a few suspected unintended consequences. It also doesn’t take effect until 2015, after environmental studies, which Governor Brown said could take 18 months, are completed.
Meanwhile, oil producers will be salivating at the prospect of tapping the nation’s largest oil shale deposits while they continue fracking in the ocean and other unexpected and unidentified places.
The Bee said moderate Democrats dominated the Kitchen party list, which would make sense in a state whose legislature is overwhelming run by moderate Democrats. The newspaper only identified six Democratic Party guests: Assembly members Adam Gray, Henry Perea and Cheryl Brown, and Senators Norma Torres, Lou Correa and Ron Calderon.
Calderon was the subject of an FBI sting last week involving multiple bribery schemes unrelated to the energy industry.
Dinner at The Kitchen is a small part of the oil industry’s legislative lobbying effort. The party’s host, Western States Petroleum Association, through KP Public Affairs, was the top-billing lobbyist firm in the state during the third quarter, according the Bee, contributing $1,658,459.
The oil industry has spent $45 million lobbying in California since 2009, according to the American Lung Association’s Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing. That doesn’t include donations to political campaigns. Although the group mostly focuses on tobacco-related issues, its interest in protecting lungs from toxic elements leads it to the oil industry.