Environmentalists turn on ally over fracking bill

California state Sen. Fran Pavley’s bill to regulate fracking in California was always going to face a fight from the oil industry.

But now it’s under attack from some of Pavley’s most ardent supporters — environmentalists.

Many want to ban fracking outright, not regulate it. They are pressing Gov. Jerry Brown to halt the oil-production technique, used in a growing number of wells across the state.

And they fear that Pavley’s bill, if passed, would give politicians an excuse to let fracking continue.

It’s a strange turn for Pavley, a Democrat from Los Angeles County who wrote California’s landmark global warming law.

“When you have a legislature and a governor who are pro-fracking, they’re going to use this as political cover,” said activist Lauren Steiner. “They going to say, ‘We have protected Californians with the toughest regulations in the nation, so we don’t need a moratorium.’”

Monterey Shale: ‘Acidizing’ oil wells — bigger than fracking?

On Monday, Steiner joined members of progressive groups MoveOn.org and CREDO at a press conference outside Pavley’s district office in Calabasas, urging the senator to withdraw her bill and push for a ban instead.

“This is the biggest scourge facing this country today — fracking,” Steiner said. “The only answer to this problem is a complete ban.”

Not all environmentalists oppose Pavley’s bill, which would require oil companies to obtain a specific permit for fracking and notify nearby property owners in advance. The bill, SB 4, also would launch a sweeping study of fracking’s risks, including the potential for groundwater contamination.

“We think it’s a commonsense bill that takes some important, urgently needed steps,” said Ralph Cavanagh, head of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It doesn’t deal with everything. But we don’t understand why having nothing would be better.”

While some environmentalists simply want a ban, others oppose specific provisions of the bill. The legislation would, for example, allow oil companies to conceal from the public the complete list of chemicals they use in fracking by claiming that those chemicals represent a trade secret. While some oil companies currently disclose the chemicals they use, others don’t, saying they don’t want to reveal that information to competitors.

Fracking, more properly known as hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping a pressurized blend of water, sand and chemicals into wells to crack underground rocks. It has triggered a boom in oil and natural gas production across the United States. Critics say it is contaminating aquifers, worsening air pollution and keeping America addicted to fossil fuels.

In California, oil companies are using fracking to pry oil from the Monterey Shale, a vast rock formation believed to hold 15.4 billion barrels of crude. Roughly 1,000 wells in the state have been fracked since the start of 2011, according to a website that tracks fracking operations nationwide. Pavley’s district, covering parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, includes many of those wells.

Poll: Californians support fracturing for its economic benefits

Pavley says she sympathizes with some of her bill’s critics. But she points out that the California legislature this year already killed several bills that would have imposed a moratorium on fracking. In its original language, Pavley’s bill would have halted fracking if the state did not finish its study of fracking’s risks by 2015. She removed that language to improve the bill’s chances.

“This bill’s going to be very tough to get through the system,” she said. “Some people think this bill should be stronger. I don’t disagree with that.”
Pavley argued, however, that with fracking already under way in California, the state needs tighter regulation.

“If there isn’t the (legislative) support for a moratorium or ban, it seems a bill that sets up appropriate regulations and provides more information is a prudent step,” she said.
Critics of the bill acknowledge that it’s an awkward situation, given Pavley’s record on environmental legislation.

“I’m a huge fan of Fran Pavley,” Steiner said. “This is not about her.”

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