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The War Over Fracking in California has just Begun

Alex Constantine - June 25, 2013

With the defeat of hydraulic fracturing legislation in California, environmentalists have hit a dry well in what once had looked like a winning campaign to regulate fracking in the state with the nation’s largest shale oil reserves.

All but two of a dozen fracking-related bills have been shot down or are languishing in limbo in the California Legislature. They would have imposed a range of restrictions on fracking, from prohibiting the use of fresh water to banning all drilling until a scientific review deemed the process safe.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Unlike in 2012, when the oil lobby defeated similar bills, green-minded Democrats now hold a supermajority in the Legislature. Moreover, recent court decisions and actions by regional regulators have sided with environmental groups in disputes over the drilling technology, which injects chemical-laced water under high pressure into wells to break up subterranean rock formations containing natural gas and oil. Concerns over fracking’s potential to pollute water supplies, despoil habitat for endangered wildlife and even trigger earthquakes fueled a raft of bills to impose strict government oversight over a drilling practice that has gone unregulated in California.

Money, though, always talks. According to Maplight, a Berkeley, California, non-profit that tracks campaign contributions, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and other oil giants vastly outspent the greens. For instance, legislators who voted no on a bill that would have temporarily banned fracking received 31 times more cash from industry opponents of the legislation than supporters.  “The truth is that our legislature is very much beholden to the oil and gas industries,” Rose Braz, climate campaign director for environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told Quartz.

The fight against fracking now continues on other battlefields. National environmental groups like the CBD and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pressing the anti-fracking campaign in the courts and in communities that sit atop the Monterey Shale, the vast geological formation that contains an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of oil.

On June 18, CBD and NRDC helped persuade the San Benito County Board of Supervisors to require drillers to notify property owners within one mile (1.6 kilometers) of a planned well and mandate a 500-foot (152 meters) buffer zone between well sites and homes, businesses and roads. Before drilling, companies must also submit plans that disclose natural gas emissions, waste disposal and the source of water used for drilling.

The bigger target, though, is California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat and longtime environmentalist. CBD is already suing the Brown administration, accusing it of failing to police fracking, and Damon Nagami, a senior attorney with NRDC, says environmental groups will press the governor to impose a moratorium on drilling.

Brown’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment but such a campaign could put the governor in an awkward spot. Brown has made fighting climate change a priority but he has shown a pragmatic streak when it comes to balancing environmental protection and economic growth. Mindful of the thousands of jobs a fracking boom would create, he has tried to walk a fine line in the dispute. His erstwhile allies, however, will have none of that. “Governor Brown needs to look at this from a climate change perspective and keep new sources of fossil fuel in the ground,” said Braz.

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