Showdown on California Fracking Moratorium Set for Monday

Posted on 29 April 2013

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By Dan Aiello

A key committee vote on legislation calling for a halt to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in California that would effectively stop out of state oil companies from reaching California's vast Monterey Shale deposit is set for Monday in Sacramento.

The stakes could not be higher for the oil and gas industry as environmentalists embark on their latest David versus Goliath struggle over California's environment before the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee April 29th.

The 11,000 foot deep Monterey Shale Deposit is estimated to contain more than 15.4 billion barrels of oil. Unfortunately, the deposit, spread over more than six California counties and under the state's ecologically fragile coastline, may be too costly to the state's other precious resource, water. It takes as many as 8 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil, and the water, once used, becomes a toxic soup which must be carefully disposed of or it will destroy groundwater supplies and fertile farmland.

Fracking operations have casing and holding pond failure rates at six to ten percent. Environmentalists fear the proliferation of fracking wells would likely mean contamination of pristine coast and groundwater supplies in the Golden State.

Assembly Bill 1301 (Bloom, D-Santa Monica) has health, agriculture and environmental support from the California Nurses Association, Breast Cancer Action, Family Farm Defenders, Aromas Cares for Our Environment, Frack-Free Culver City, Baldwin Hills Oil Watch and more than 100 other organizations representing labor, farmers, public health professionals and local residents concerned about fracking pollution in their communities.

In a letter delivered to state legislators last week, the groups expressed strong support for Santa Monica Assemblymember Richard Bloom's bill that would place a moratorium on fracking while mandating a review of the controversial practice's health and environmental dangers.

"Fracking endangers our climate, air, water, wildlife, public health and private property," says the groups' letter. The bill is sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch and Clean Water Action.

Environmentalists point out that the oil industry in California is notorious for ignoring the state's existing environmental quality regulations, noting Governor Brown's recent additional fracking regulations proposal did not include any increase in monitoring. California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has only 50 on-the-ground inspectors for the state's thousands of oil wells, according to a DOGGR representative appearing before the Assembly committee earlier this year.

Tesoro, the state's largest California refinery owner, only this week announced plans to rail midwest crude to Oregon and Washington then ship the crude to its California refineries in order to avoid existing California permits and regulations. Environmentalists claim the Tesoro management's decision is typical of the oil and gas industry with the company choosing profit and the increased environmental risk inherent to the "rail-to-ship-to-pipe/barge/rail" Tesoro plan over California's environmental protections.

Fracking has caused the contamination of California farmland and studies in six other states show the dangers of water contamination to land, livestock, pets and humans.

California land is sold as "split estate," and many homeowners do not realize they do not own the mineral rights beneath their land. There is scant compensation should fracking operations contaminate the groundwater or the land above during extraction.

Out of state (mostly Texas-based), oil interests primarily own the mineral rights and California is the only government in the world not to impose an oil severance tax on extraction of its finite resource to help pay for monitoring or recovery from the destruction of oil extraction, production or transport.

California, once the second largest oil production state, has fallen to fourth with the depletion of the Kern County deposits. The oil industry has for 60 years maintained enough legislators in Sacramento to prevent a two-thirds majority imposition of an oil severance tax.

Heavy-Hitter Politics

The oil and gas industry lobby in Sacramento, Western States Petroleum Association, spent $8.5 million to influence legislators and manufacture consent last year making the industry's lobby the strongest in Sacramento, while Chevron alone spent $5.6 million, according to Sarah Gilman at High Country News.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) essentially unlocked unlimited corporate financial influence on the California legislature (California Chamber of Commerce has more than doubled its lobbying budget since 2010), making environmentalists' attempts to ban fracking in the state a "David versus Goliath" long shot.

It is not just the enormous amount of money the oil and gas industry spends that influences votes, but what political scientists call the "fear of untold potential" funding the industry could spend against a legislator who dares to go against their wishes.

California currently produces 240 million barrels of oil annually.

The hearing is scheduled in Sacramento's historic statehouse, room 447, at 1:30 p.m. Monday. It will also be carried live on CalChannel.

Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report. His coverage of California water issues and fracking were recently cited in a San Diego Union Tribune editorial, "A Faustian Bargain."