Comments on California SB4

After a year of wrangling and controversy, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB4 in September. Depending on who you believe, it is the most progressive anti-fracking law in the country, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing designed to promote oil company interests.

There is a great deal at stake. Fracking has been going on in California for years, but will expand rapidly with the discovery that the Monterey Shale in Central Valley may contain 15 billion barrels of extractable oil.

SB4 was the sole survivor of seven bills in the legislature on fracking in this term. Most sought to put a moratorium on fracking until a 2015 state report on the safety of fracking could be completed. SB4 sought to regulate fracking instead. Opponents say it became so watered down in the debate that it became toothless in its final version.

The new regulations associated with the law go into effect in 2015. Provisions include:

  • Oil companies must apply for a permit before fracking and disclose where it will take place, how much water will be used, the source of that water and how it will be disposed.
  •  They must disclose what chemicals are used in fracking, but not the concentrations in cases where they claim a trade secret exemption.
  • Oil well operators must provide at least 30 days advance written notice before fracking, to landowners and neighbors within 1,500 feet of the well.
  • Property owners may request water quality testing of their own wells before and after fracking.
  • Well operators must review earthquake faults in the area to ensure that the fluids used fracking don’t migrate along faults.
  • An independent science panel will study the potential risks from hydraulic fracturing and other extraction techniques like acid well stimulation and report by January 1, 2015.
  • State oil and gas regulators will do an environmental impact review of the potential environmental risks of fracking in the state and report by July 1, 2015.
  •  The state will also set up a website by January 2016 for public information about fracking.
  • The State Water Resources Control Board will create a program to monitor groundwater basins specifically to protect drinking water sources from fracking.

Opponents say that the bill’s flaws are numerous. Over 100 organizations have signed a letter deriding the bill, saying that only a full moratorium can protect the state’s environment.

  • Provisions in the bill would exempt many fracking projects from meaningful environmental review.
  • wording in SB4 that says the state “shall” approve permits until early 2015, when the scientific report will be finished, could eliminate the governor’s authority to issue a moratorium even if real dangers were found.
  • Because the new regulations don’t take effect until 2015, state regulators could ignore aspects of the state’s main environmental law — the California Environmental Quality Act — when it comes to fracking.
  • In a state with a lot of seismic activity, fracking is particularly risky, given a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research that shows earthquakes clearly associated with fracking in the Youngstown, Ohio area.
  • Allowing fracking in California is in direct conflict with the state’s goal of promoting clean energy.

One result is that several local jurisdictions, including Santa Cruz County, Berkeley, Marin County, Carson and others have enacted local bans on fracking. It’s worth noting that none of these is remotely close to the Monterey Shale and its riches.

How is what happened in California instructive for Montana?

First, despite SB4’s weaknesses, the provisions in the law go a long way toward regulating drilling. Montana would be well served to consider these provisions to keep energy companies from doing to the state what they’ve done in North Dakota and Wyoming. Second, even in a state that is heavily Democratic and generally friendly to the envirnoment, the economic allure of all those billions of barrels of oil derailed any hope of a fracking ban, and caused brutal pressure to water down the bill before it was voted into law. In a state that has little in the way of drilling regulation on the books, it is going to be an uphill battle to get new legislation passed in Montana. The NPRC had better be prepared for a sustained fight to protect the envirnoment and quality of life in Carbon and Stillwater Counties.

Toward that end they’ve created the Beartooth Front Defense Fund. They plan to raise $50,000 to fund political activity, legal support, and public communication on the issue. If you care about this issue please contribute today. Fracking in Montana is going to expand quickly, and you should feel urgency to act now to stop Carbon County from becoming the next Bakken.

A Monday, November 18 edition of Michael Krasny’s Forum on KQED (NPR) dealt with the issue of SB4 and fracking in California in detail. You can listen to it here. It’s worth 50 minutes of your time.

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About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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