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California Poised to Enact Dangerous Fracking Bill

A bill that started out aimed at protecting Californians from fracking veered off course.
 
 
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New oil pumpjacks in an agricultural field in Shafter, California.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

 
 
 
 

Sacramento -- Senate Bill 4, a controversial bill sponsored by Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) that opponents say would clear a path to increased fracking, passed the California Legislature on Wednesday, September 11 and is now headed to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. 

The Assembly passed the bill by a vote of 53 to 18 in the morning. The bill then moved to the Senate for concurrence and was approved by the Senate late yesterday. 

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid – typically water, sand, and chemicals, including ones known to kill fish and cause cancer in humans – are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well. This releases extra oil and gas from the rock, so it can flow into the well, according to Food and Water Watch. 

"SB 4 would require permits for fracking, acidizing and other oil well stimulation practices, according to a news release from Senator Pavley's office. "It would require notification of neighbors, public disclosure of all chemicals used, groundwater and air quality monitoring and an independent scientific study. The study would evaluate potential risks such as groundwater and surface water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, local air pollution, seismic impacts, and effects on wildlife, native plants and habitat." 

In response to massive opposition to her bill from a broad coalition of anti-fracking groups, Senator Pavley claimed her bill is “an insurance policy" - and described the bill's passage as a "stunning victory for the public and the environment that moves California a step closer to regulating hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), acidizing and other unregulated oilfield practices." 

“Without SB 4, there will be no public disclosure of chemicals, no groundwater monitoring and no regulation of acidizing, and the oil companies will continue to be able to frack without a permit or any public accountability whatsoever,” she stated. “The world won’t be perfect if SB 4 passes, but it will be a whole lot better. 

Pavley added, “I commend my colleagues for this crucial and difficult vote. There are still many unanswered questions about the use and impacts of fracking and acidizing, and it is in the interest of all Californians to monitor and regulate these practices. Ultimately the oil industry, not the public, should be held accountable for the costs of these activities.” 

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Brown's office said the Governor will sign the bill if the legislation reaches his desk. 

"The administration has worked collaboratively with the Legislature to craft a bill that comprehensively addresses potential impacts from fracking, including water and air quality, seismic activity and other potential risks," claimed Brown spokesman Evan Westrup. 

Calling the legislation "an important step forward," Westrup said Brown "looks forward to signing it once it reaches his desk." 

Opponents say legislation undermines existing environmental law 

Bill opponents disagree strongly with the Brown administration's assessment of the bill as "an important step forward. The bill "undermines existing environmental law and leaves Californians unprotected from fracking and other dangerous and extreme fossil fuel extraction techniques," according to a statement from Californians Against Fracking, a statewide coalition of over 100 organizations now calling for a moratorium on fracking. 

The coalition said farmers, environmental justice groups, public health advocates, local elected officials, students, Hollywood, and many others are calling on Governor Brown to and put a stop to fracking in California. 200,000 petitions have been signed urging Governor Brown to ban fracking in California. 

Members of Californians Against Fracking criticized the Assembly's passage of the already weak bill that was further weakened by amendments supported by the Western States Petroleum Association on Friday, September 6 - and urged Brown to ban or place an immediate moratorium on fracking in California. They charged that the bill, as amended, exempts the legislation from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

"This vote to allow fracking in California and exempt it from California's benchmark environmental law shows that our Assembly has thoroughly failed at protecting Californians," said Zack Malitz, campaign manager for CREDO. "We're depending on Governor Brown to step in to prevent the wholesale fracking of our state." 

"This legislation does nothing to stop fracking or protect communities across the state from its harmful effects and last minute changes to the bill made it even worse," said Adam Scow, California campaigns director at Food & Water Watch. "The threats to our state's water, air, and climate are real and pressing and we don't have time for half measures like SB 4. We need courageous leadership – it’s time for Governor Brown to act now to ban fracking in California." 

"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," said Victoria Kaplan, campaign director at MoveOn.org. "Legislators have failed to heed the wishes of a majority of Californians calling for a moratorium or a ban and MoveOn members will continue to organize across the state for an end to fracking." 

“The passage of SB 4 demonstrates the continuing stranglehold that Big Oil has on the political process in Sacramento. Attempts to find common ground with an industry hell-bent on exploiting every last drop of oil regardless of the impact on California’s water, valuable farmland and the climate are inevitably bound to fail. The passage of this mangled bill only confirms the need for a moratorium on these dangerous extraction techniques,” said Ross Hammond, senior campaigner with Friends of the Earth. 

“SB 4 tragically green-lights an extremely dangerous practice with terrible public health impacts near the homes and schools of California’s communities already most overburdened by pollution,” said Madeline Stano, Luke Cole Memorial Fellow at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. 

“This bill will not protect Californians from the enormous threats of fracking pollution,” summed up Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Fracking poses unacceptable risks to the air we breathe, the water we drink and our climate. We’ll keep working to end this inherently dangerous activity in our state.” 

In her comment on the Sacramento Bee website, activist Lauren Steiner, who led a petition campaign which got 20,000 signatures urging Pavley to drop her bill and fight for a ban instead, emphasized, "This bill is just a permitting, monitoring, notification and disclosure bill with a study thrown in. 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?" 

To read her complete comment and the article it responds to, go here.

At the last minute, the only four NGOs still supporting the bill - the California League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, the Environmental Working Group and Natural Resources Defense Council - pulled their support for the legislation after the Legislature refused to amend the bill as they had requested earlier in the day. Their letter to Pavley is available here.

The evidence of the enormous threat that fracking poses to fish, water, air and the environment continues to pile up. Oil companies have used 12 dangerous “air toxic” chemicals more than 300 times in the Los Angeles Basin in recent months, according to a new report from the Center for Biological Diversity that is already drawing concerned reactions from public health advocates and an L.A. city councilmembers. Air toxics are chemicals considered among the most dangerous air pollutants because they can cause illness and death.    At the same time that Governor Brown said he intends to sign the gutted fracking bill, the Brown administration continues to fast track the construction of the twin tunnels under the Sacramento -San Joaquin River Delta to export more water to corporate agribusiness interests. The building of the peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) will hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon and steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species.  Californians Against Fracking is a coalition of environmental, business, health, agriculture, labor, political, and environmental justice organizations working to win a statewide ban on fracking in California. For more information and to sign the petitions to ban fracking in California, visit: Californians Against Fracking.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

 
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