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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Closing Environmental Fissures

Much public debate has occurred recently over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a method of oil extraction in which pressurized water, sand and chemicals are injected underground to create fissures in the rock and release petroleum. The industry argues fracking has been used safely for decades, but the reality is much more complicated. Companies are experimenting with new horizontal and deep-drilling technologies and they are using dangerous chemicals whose identities have not been completely disclosed to the public. They are also experimenting with other techniques such as acidizing, in which large volumes of corrosive acids are used to dissolve shale rock. These technologies have led the industry closer to tapping the Monterey Shale Formation, a 15 billion barrel deposit under California. With this potential oil boom looming on the horizon, California must keep pace with other states that are already putting in place strong regulations. We are falling behind, and the public has been largely left in the dark about what has been going on. As we advance it is imperative that all Californians be protected. Californians are rightly concerned about fracking, and many believe the practice should be banned. The California Democratic Party, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley are all on record supporting a resolution “Supporting a Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracking.” This year a number of bills were introduced in the legislature that would address fracking, including three that included a ban or moratorium. All of these were defeated except for Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), which originally included the moratorium but no longer does. However, under the current version of this bill, before a well is fracked or acidized, companies must obtain a permit, notify neighbors, test the groundwater and comply with numerous other regulations. The bill requires the name of every chemical used to be disclosed on a public website, and it provides for an independent scientific study. With fracking and acidizing already underway in California, SB 4 would set much-needed standards for accountability, transparency and protection of the environment and public health and safety. Clearly SB 4 would be a big improvement over what we have now. But there are numerous reasons to be concerned about fracking. The practice uses huge amounts of water and yields dangerous byproducts, including wastewater that must be properly managed. There has been evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking in other states such as Pennsylvania. Through the permitting process and multidepartment coordination, SB 4 would require that before a well is fracked or acidized operators must provide estimates of the amount of water and the composition of the fluids used. Operators must also provide a wastewater disposal plan and a groundwater monitoring plan. In addition, once a permit is approved, those around the site would receive notification and would have the option of receiving baseline and follow-up water testing. It is clear that there are still many unanswered questions about fracking and acidizing. SB 4 would, for the first time, provide data to enable closer monitoring and study of the risks of these practices. The independent scientific study required by the bill would, at a minimum, cover potential greenhouse gas emissions, air and water quality impacts, effects on plants and animals, potential noise pollution and earthquake risks. Passing SB 4 in its current form would be a huge victory for those of us who believe fracking is a problem and even for those who, like me, believe a moratorium would be the best solution. There are real risks here, and SB 4 should be recognized for setting an important standard. The bill provides crucial safeguards and a regulatory framework that can be updated in the future, as needed, based on the latest available data. To date, little has been done by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the state agency in charge of monitoring fracking, to address the public’s concerns. The agency has put forth its own draft regulations but it is too little, too late. The Legislature must step in and lead the campaign to regulate this industry and protect the public. Sen. Pavley has clearly proven herself to be one of the most important environmental advocates we have, and it makes sense that she would be leading this effort to protect the public and hold the oil industry accountable. Agi Kessler is chairwoman of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley.

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