As California lawmakers consider legislation for a statewide moratorium, the Monterey Planning Commission took a bold step forward yesterday to protect its residents from the myriad risks fracking poses.
The Planning Commission, in a 7-0 vote, passed a resolution supporting an ordinance that (1) prohibits all new oil and gas exploration and removal on residential land, and (2) requires any oil company that wishes to use fracking or other risky well stimulation techniques in non-residential areas to first obtain a conditional use permit from the Commission — even when that use is for an already-existing well. NRDC supported the resolution and proposed ordinance. However, what the Planning Commission did was even bigger and bolder.
Residential areas account for only about 5 percent of the County. The proposed ordinance would not provide any substantive protections for the other 95 percent of the County's land or its farmers, ranchers, vintners, and residents. At yesterday's hearing, community organizations, environmental groups, and local leaders came together and spoke out on behalf of that other 95 percent. More than 20 people testified at the hearing, and there was a flood of comment letters. The call at the hearing and in the comment letters was largely united — for a countywide moratorium. (You can read NRDC's comment letter here, and here's a fact sheet that NRDC provided that demonstrates why California's state regulations aren't as tough as regulators claim and insufficient to protect residents and the environment.)
And the democratic process worked.
In a surprise move, the Commission also voted to place a two-year moratorium on fracking and other well stimulation in the County. The Commission said the moratorium was needed to study, at a local level, the effects of fracking on dwindling water supplies in the County and to allow time for the state to conduct its environmental review and implement its proposed fracking regulations.
The Commission's unanimous vote in favor of a countywide moratorium happened because of the wide and unified support of various groups, including Protect Salinas Valley, a local group that NRDC has been working with for almost a year now. Before the vote, Commissioner Keith Vandevere echoed the concerns and feelings of many of the folks who spoke out in favor of a moratorium when he pointed out the troubling present lack of any restrictions on well stimulation in Monterey County and the fact that there is no urgency to tap the County's shale formation sources.
The moratorium is not in place, yet. The Commission's unanimous vote was to recommend such a moratorium to the Board of Supervisors. Ultimately, it is the Board of Supervisors that would have the power to pass the proposed ordinance and implement the moratorium. But the vote is still big news — and we hope the Board of Supervisors will follow the Planning Commission's example and listen to the call of the people.
Monterey County is the latest in a growing trend we're seeing in California and around the country of communities taking their fracking fate into their own hands, rather than waiting for the state and federal government to protect them. Increasingly, towns, cities, and counties are standing up to big oil and gas and asserting their right to say whether fracking can come into their backyards. To the south, Los Angeles is currently considering similar action. Others around the country — from Colorado to Ohio — are doing the same thing. Standing up for this right to self-determination is what American democracy is all about. That's something NRDC is proud to support through our Community Fracking Defense Project, and something we're excited to see unfold in Monterey County.
Monterey County is home not only to the breathtaking 17-mile Pacific coast drive, Pebble Beach, the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, rolling oak-covered hills, walnut orchards, grape vineyards, the Salinas River, and one of the richest agricultural valleys in the country — it's oil country too. The Planning Commission estimates there are thousands of existing oil and gas wells in the County, and some of these wells are still operating on permits that date back to the 1940s.
We must not blindly forge ahead with a highly industrial technology that often employs dangerous, toxic chemicals and puts our health and water at risk. Our local regulators and representatives have an obligation to protect the land, the water, and us. Thank you, Monterey Planning Commission, for taking a striking step in that direction.
Photo credit: Sarah Craig/NRDC