Our View: New fracking law a good step, compromise

09/25/2013 6:42 PM

09/25/2013 6:43 PM

One of the accomplishments of the Legislature this year is a compromise bill on fracking that allows the oil extraction technique to continue but with strict regulations to be drafted over the next 18 months. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4 last week.

Headed into the session, there were multiple proposals to ban fracking, the controversial procedure that most people have heard about and few people understand. The bill that passed will put fracking under more serious scrutiny in California than occurs in any other state, primarily because in 2005 Congress approved the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts fracking from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirements.

SB4 is of high interest to the San Joaquin Valley for several reasons:

• Fracking now takes place primarily in Kern County, but the practice likely will spread north, eventually possibly reaching Merced and Stanislaus counties. The Monterey shale formation covers 1,750 square miles running the length of the center of the state. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that the Monterey shale contains more than 15 billion barrels of oil, two-thirds of the shale oil reserve in the United States. A USC study suggested this could become a major economic boost for the Valley, creating as many as 512,000 new jobs. More than half of the fuel consumed in California, the state of many motorists, comes from foreign places.
• Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, was the principal co-author of this bill, which was carried by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Gray told The Modesto Bee that his interest in the subject was piqued by the USC study but also by the concern about groundwater. His district and the whole Valley, of course, are struggling with a shortage of water.
• One of the things that Gray was able to get included in the bill is a provision that all groundwater quality information collected in the fracking studies will go to a “doctoral-degree-granting institution located in the San Joaquin Valley.” That institution is, of course, UC Merced, and this will only enhance the campus’ growing reputation as a repository of knowledge about Valley water issues.

In promoting the bill, Gray organized a legislative trip to North Dakota to learn about fracking operations there. Republican Sens. Tom Berryhill of Modesto and Anthony Cannella of Ceres were part of that trip and ultimately voted for the bill.

The legislation had strong opposition from both sides. Many in the oil industry opposed any regulation while some environmental groups wanted a total ban on fracking. We like several aspects of the compromise that resulted.

The bill will require completion of a statewide environmental impact report and streamlined California Environmental Quality Act review of fracking projects.

Neighboring landowners will receive notice that fracking is taking place. There will be public disclosure of the chemicals used, and of the amount of fluid and pressure employed to fracture underground rock to extract oil. There also would be groundwater monitoring and sampling.

The law applies to all forms of well stimulation, including acidification, which entails injecting acid into wells to create channels through which oil and gas can flow.

California needs to continually embrace alternatives to fossil fuels, but it also should attempt to be less dependent on oil from the Middle East and nations such as Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1992, California produced half the oil it needed. Alaska provided 45 percent, and foreign sources accounted for 5 percent. By 2012, California produced less than 37 percent of the petroleum consumed in this state, and foreign sources accounted for almost 51 percent.

By shunning fracking, Californians would continue to send offshore the damage done by oil drilling even as we remain a state heavily dependent on gasoline-powered cars.

The use of petroleum won’t end anytime soon. With this law, California policymakers have helped provide a bridge by allowing safe extraction of old fuel, while continuing to encourage alternative fuel.

Finally, passage of this law is a feather in the cap for Gray in his first year in the Assembly. We have no doubt that his experience as a former legislative staffer was useful in bringing together people who frequently disagree. It is unusual for a first-year legislator to be so heavily involved in carrying a bill of statewide significance and interest.

Gray campaigned as a moderate who would promote economic vitality for the Valley, watch out for agriculture and yet not ignore the environment. His role in SB4 is a good example of achieving that balance.

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