No Free Pass For Fracking In California

We are (regrettably) used to seeing end-of-session hijinks in Sacramento when “gut and amend” bills and other special interest tricks get rolled out.  But today we’re seeing a new one:  an entire industry that wants a free pass to pollute by evading the protections of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

NRDC and many others support SB 4 (Pavley), which has many important provisions that would protect communities from fracking and other well stimulation methods like acidization (which is just what it sounds like – pumping acid into the ground to free up oil and gas for extraction). SB 4  just passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee  and will go to a floor vote probably next week; then it has to go back to the Senate for concurrence, and then on to the Governor for signature or veto. The current legislative session ends next Friday, 9/13.

One important provision of SB 4 is a requirement that oil and gas companies obtain a permit from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) before engaging in fracking or acidization on new or existing wells.  Since these permits would be discretionary, they would be subject to CEQA just like any other big, potentially polluting project.  For an overview on the fracking issue, you can read my colleague Damon Nagami’s Switchboard post here

Here’s the new, high-powered hijinks.  The oil industry is now telling legislators that SB 4 is a de facto moratorium because it would require permits to frack existing wells. The industry’s lobbyists want a CEQA exemption for all existing wells, forever – not just for ongoing fracking but for any future fracking project at the same well, with new chemicals, new processes, or whatever industry chooses. 

Much as we’d like to see Governor Brown use his existing authority to take the time to study fracking and get protections in place, SB 4 is not a moratorium.  It requires a permit for future fracking, and DOGGR can grant or deny those permits as it sees fit.  Almost every other major land use decision in California is subject to some kind of permitting process – but the oil industry wants special treatment here. 

A permit process with full CEQA review for fracking is important whether a well is new or old.  CEQA is California’s primary and strongest law to let communities know the details of projects that might affect them, and to require mitigation if feasible for things like damage to groundwater.  It doesn’t matter to the groundwater whether a well is new or old – what matters is what chemicals are being forced into it to pump oil and gas.  You can get some background on the value of CEQA from my January, 2013 blog post here

The bottom line is this:  the oil industry is pushing to permanently exempt from environmental review any fracking or acid jobs at existing wells, seeking preferential treatment for fracking over how any other large industrial projects are reviewed in the state.  This is bad public policy at the end of the legislative session, or ever.  With fracking and other oil production methods that use toxic chemicals on the rise, we urgently need SB 4 now to inform Californians about oil and gas operations in their communities, and to provide basic protections for our air, land and water.

About the Authors

David Pettit

Senior Attorney, Southern California Air program

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