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Petroleum Politics 

California's latest anti-fracking bill is tapping out

click to enlarge OH, FRACK An oil field in Kern County in California—that's a lot of oil, pops!
  • OH, FRACK An oil field in Kern County in California—that's a lot of oil, pops!

A state fracking law enacted last year to regulate the oil and gas extraction practice is now helping lawmakers dodge a new anti-fracking moratorium push.

Welcome to the well-oiled wheels of fossil-fuel politics in the Golden State.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, co-sponsored the bill to stop fracking in the state, pending further environmental review. The bill is headed to a vote in the Senate appropriations committee May 19.

But SB 4, a fracking bill signed into law last year, is providing cover to oppose the new measure for at least one committee member, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.

His position appears to be finding favor: use the existing law as a pretext to oppose a renewed moratorium push.

"Some of the more moderate ones are taking that position," says Teala Schaff, a spokeswoman for Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who supports the Mitchell moratorium.

Mitchell's bill, SB 1132, would enact a moratorium until there's a "clear finding that it could be done safely and that there are regulations that ensure that it is done safely," says spokesman Charles Stewart.

They already tried that last year.

Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, introduced SB 4 in the last session as a bill that would have hit the pause button on the state's limited hydraulic-extraction industry.

But the state's gas and oil lobby got that language extracted, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. Democrats have since characterized SB 4 as basically the "better than nothing" law.

While SB 4 did enact some of the nation's toughest fracking regs, it also provided language that would allow for an expansion of the practice, which uses pressurized water, sand and acid to bore through rock to get at previously unreachable reserves in the Monterey Shale formation.

Anti-frackers say the law opened the door to a fracking boom, a door lawmakers are reluctant to close. "It allows for a green-light for fracking in the state," says David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International.

Nixing a fracking gold rush in a state that has only recent stepped back from the brink of insolvency was always a hard sell. The numbers are big all around. There are upwards of 15 billion gallons in the shale, with high-end promises gushing from the oil industry of 3 million new jobs and $25 billion in tax revenue.

Environmental groups around the state had supported the Pavley bill because it offered the moratorium. When she yanked the moratorium language, they yanked their support.

Despite growing opposition—and rising concerns about fracking's potential to cause earthquakes—prospects for a moratorium appear to be running out of gas this time around, too.

The two Republican members of the appropriations committee, Mimi Walters and Ted Gaines, have already signaled opposition. Walters received $33,500 from the fossil-fuel lobby in 2012, according to data provided by Oil Change. She opposed the Pavley bill last year (too much regulation!), and opposes the moratorium.

Meanwhile, Lara abstained when the Mitchell bill came up for a previous committee vote. Lara, who, according to Oil Change, accepted $17,300 from fossil-fuel interests in 2012, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to see how Pavley's law played out before considering a moratorium.

Lara did not respond to two emails seeking further comment.

A spokesperson for committee chairman Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said the senator was studying the Mitchell bill and would not take a stand in advance of the May 19 vote.

Sen. de León has received over $30,000 in contributions from the fossil-fuel lobby over eight years in the state Assembly and Senate, says Oil Change.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, will support the Mitchell bill, says his spokesman.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, and Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

All of the Democrats on appropriations voted for the Pavley bill last year, as did Mitchell, who represents a low-income district of Los Angeles that sits atop the Inglewood Oil Field.

"We supported Sen. Pavley's bill, but just felt that we needed to go further," says Mitchell's spokesman.

Evans also supported SB 4 after the moratorium language was stripped. "We have got to start somewhere," Schaff says, adding that Evans has offered a bill of her own this year that slaps an extraction tax on the gas and oil industry.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, whose district comprises parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, says she is supporting Mitchell's bill, but admits that it's a "heavy lift because of the enactment of SB 4."

Gov. Brown promised unspecified amendments in a signing statement last year that would, he said, strengthen SB 4 to the liking of environmentalists.

"Unless the amendment is, 'We're going to stop fracking,' it's not going to placate the environmental community," says Turnbull.

In any event, those promised amendments are nowhere to be seen this legislative session.

  • California's latest anti-fracking bill is tapping out

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