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Politicians Who Support Fracking Are Starting to Pay a Political Price

As a popular Dem governor politicks at his party convention, he runs into unexpected turbulence.

The California Democratic Party convention is normally a pre-scripted affair, where the press gets copies of the speeches in advance and writes their stories before the politicians deliver them. However, this weekend’s convention in Los Angeles exploded into an unusually vocal battle over fracking, revealing tensions between the elected leadership and the party rank-and-file.

Similar debates have played out among Democrats across the country, with activists no longer allowing establishment figures to talk about stopping climate change out of one side of their mouth and support what they see as a devastating attack on the climate with the other.

A few years ago, California had no regulations at all against fracking, and an unknown number of companies were already injecting liquids at high pressure to release natural resources hidden in shale rock. In California, fracking is not generally done for natural gas, but oil, most of it in the Monterey shale, a massive sedimentary formation in the central part of the state. This region contains, by some estimates, more than half of the recoverable shale oil in the United States, and as such represents a bonanza for oil companies.

“Some of our oil is dirtier than the Canadian tar sands,” said RL Miller, the head of the state party’s environmental caucus and a key anti-fracking activist, noting the intensity of energy needed to recover the thick oil out of the Monterey Shale. “In my mind fracking for that oil is as bad as the Keystone pipeline.” In addition to the environmental costs, engaging in the seismically volatile activity in a known earthquake zone unsettled many in the state, including normally conservative local farmers.

Activists sought a moratorium on fracking, but have been consistently stymied. Proposed regulations were defeated in the state Legislature in 2012, and the eventual bill that  passed in 2013 was a weak alternative. It did mandate disclosure of fracking activities and the chemicals used in fracking, and would pre-test water wells near fracking sites before and after production to examine changes to water quality. But the rules won’t take effect until 2015, and an environmental impact study was similarly delayed as well.

Critics consider the bill a  poor substitute, resentful that a Legislature dominated by Democrats would produce regulations with such deference to the oil industry. Many blame Gov. Jerry Brown for orchestrating the opposition to stronger regulations, and they vowed to continue their fight for an outright ban. A bill, SB1132,  has been introduced that would pause fracking in the state until the release of the 2015 environmental impact report.

The activist work on fracking was in evidence in Los Angeles. A packed environmental caucus on Friday night featured an unlikely set of establishment politicians supporting the moratorium, including Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the state party, and John Perez, speaker of the Assembly last year when the weaker regulations passed. Perez, now running for state controller, told the caucus he would push the moratorium through the Assembly this year. Some activists viewed this with skepticism. “When I went to Perez’ office a year ago to ask him to put the moratorium back in the bill, his staff said he had no power to do it,” said Dorothy Reik, a state party delegate and anti-fracking activist. Now when he’s a lame duck, all of a sudden he has the power.”

Miller and her colleagues targeted Gov. Brown’s Saturday keynote address, printing up signs that read “Another Democrat Against Fracking” and planning a silent protest, holding up the signs during the speech. Security personnel at the morning session confiscated a number of the signs, but many made their way through to the convention floor. Miller herself was briefly asked to leave the hall but returned without the signs.

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