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From Gov. Jerry Brown On Down, Too Many California Democrats Sell Out On Fracking And Climate Change

Top Democrats ignore two-thirds of Californians who wanted a fracking moratorium.

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At best, Brown’s position might be described as studied ambivilence—he knows what’s going on but disagrees with the anti-fracking activists. In the state Senate, the politics appear to be rougher and more craven. Two weeks before the moratorium vote in late May, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a statewide poll finding that 68 percent of Californians backed a fracking moratorium. Among Democrats, it was 78 percent. Among Independents, 74 percent. Among Republicans, 51 percent.

California has 40 state senators; 28 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Three of the Democrats have been suspended by their collegues due to criminal investigations. When the fracking moratorium, SB 1132, came up for a vote in late May, five additional Democrats—in districts along the Mexican border, the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, and in Silicon Valley—intentionally skipped the vote. Nearly one-third of all elected Democratic senators did not vote on a stance supported by a super majority of Californians.

Stewart said that the Democrats who voted against the bill, or “walked,” feared being labelled as job-killers in re-election campaigns. “It's jobs," he said bluntly. "It wasn’t that it would kill current jobs, but it comes out of California’s high [regional] unemployment.” Meanwhile, his boss’s efforts to frame the moratorium as a public health and racial justice issue didn’t sway other senators.

“The battle lines here are those who want fracking stopped until it is proven safe—and there are doubts it can be,” Stewart said. “The other side says, ‘Prove that it causes damage.’ ‘Isolate injuries to individuals.’ It’s not hard to prove symptoms, but it’s hard isolating fracking as the cause. Until then, they say, ‘We own the property. It’s for commercial use. So don’t burden us or stop the process.’”

“Essentially, they won,” he said. “Fracking continues in California until we can produce a study that isolates injuries that it can affect. Our argument is the opposite. Stop the fracking until we know it’s safe.”

Days before the Senate moratorium vote, another unexpected development surfaced that gave Democrats, including Brown, more cover from taking a leadership stance. The Los Angeles Times reported that the federal agency that had issued the estimate that the Monterey Shale held 13.7 billion barrels of oil was preparing an new estimate—to be released in July—that only 600 million barrels of oil were accessible via current technologies. The Western States Petroleum Association replied that it would “solve this puzzle.”

That significantly revised estimate—more than 90 percent—gave California’s Democrats room to postpose a fracking decision, because it underscored that large scale drilling was not an immediate threat.

Since then, many of the state's Democratic legislators are showing other signs that they are not taking climate change as a serious enough threat to make it a policy priority. Last week, Fresno’s Democratic assemblyman introduced a bill t delay an upcomimg increase in gas prices planned under California’s first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The program lets industry buy allowances to offset climate-changing gases that they are releasing into the air.

That’s not the only example. The hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the cap-and-trade program is now seen as a piggy bank for state projects. Brown wants to tap it for high-speed rail. The Senate president wants some for affordable house. Unlike Alaska, where the oil industry pays every resident an annual profit-sharing dividend—$1,400 this year—there’s no parallel in California where residents get a climate dividend. Most Californians aren't even aware of the cap-and-trade revenues.

Meanwhile, influential political analysts are cheering Brown's fracking stance., The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters, said that his refusal to cave into anti-fracking hecklers was only going to help his re-election. That analysis typifies mainstream political thinking where climate change policy, from fracking to cap and trade, all take a back seat to shorter-term economic priorities.