A fracking affair
Local anti-fracking campaign launched, pushes for countywide moratorium
A video is circulating online of fracking protesters heckling Gov. Jerry Brown during his speech at the California Democratic Convention on March 8.
In the video, amid calls for “No fracking!” from the audience, Brown apparently becomes fed up. “California is the one state—the one state—that actually has a goal of reducing the consumption of oil, gas and coal and other fossil fuels,” he said. “I challenge anybody to find another state that is on that path—a serious path.”
Fracking—or, more properly, hydraulic fracturing—is the oil industry practice of injecting a cocktail of chemicals, water and sand into rock formations at high pressure to extract deep-rock oil deposits that are otherwise inaccessible. California didn’t regulate the oil-extraction method whatsoever prior to Jan. 1, when Senate Bill 4, authored by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and backed by Brown, went into effect and a permitting process for fracking activity was instituted.
While some level of oversight is a welcome change for environmental advocacy groups, many maintain that the bill fails to address a number of environmental concerns, including the potential for fracking fluids to contaminate groundwater. That’s because the bill requires after-the-fact reporting rather than prior environmental review, said Joni Stellar, the treasurer for the Frack-Free Butte County campaign, which launches today (March 13) with a press conference at the top of Oroville Dam at 10 a.m.
Organized by the Citizens Action Network (CAN), the campaign is pushing for a countywide moratorium on fracking. Volunteers began collecting signatures on Wednesday, March 12, to qualify a county ordinance for the general-election ballot in November. The signature gatherers need to obtain about 7,500 valid signatures by June 1, but the campaign plans on doubling that amount “just to be safe,” Stellar said.
The proposed ordinance would ban fracking “until the state regulates and ensures safety,” she said, “or if the fracking technology gets to the point where it can be proven safe—two big ‘ifs.’”
SB 4 requires oil and gas companies to apply for a permit for fracking, publicly disclose the chemicals they use in the process, notify neighbors before drilling, and monitor groundwater and air quality, among other requirements.
But environmental groups have taken issue with a few last-minute oil-industry-friendly amendments. “One new amendment could be used by regulators to bypass the California Environmental Quality Act’s bedrock environmental review and mitigation requirements,” the Sierra Club of California posted on its website. “Another new amendment could be interpreted to require that every fracked well be approved between now and 2015, with environmental review conducted only after the fact.”
The Sierra Club also noted that the bill contains “a Halliburton Hush Clause that gives fracking fluid-makers rights to use trade-secret protections to prevent the public from easily accessing information about the quantities of fracking chemicals injected into the ground in their region near their water sources.”
The issue of potential groundwater contamination is clearly a sticking point for Dave Garcia, former political chairman of the Sierra Club’s Yahi Group and current CAN spokesman. When the CN&R met with Garcia for a recent interview, he was wearing a T-shirt that read, “What the FRACK? Save California Agriculture.”
“The unfortunate thing with SB 4 is that it doesn’t do anything in terms of regulating the toxic chemicals they’re using,” he said, “and that’s the most frightening thing.”
Garcia explained that, when following the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s health guidelines, a relatively small amount of benzene—one of the chemicals used in the fracking process and a known carcinogen—can contaminate a tremendous amount of groundwater. According to a report released by the Environmental Working Group, the “petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels.”
As fracking operations use 500,000 to 2 million gallons of fracking fluid in each well, Garcia said he believes it’s safe to assume that “eventually, it’s going to get into our groundwater.” He pointed to a report from the Cornell Fracture Group in New York, which found that of new wells drilled in Pennsylvania between 2010 and 2012, about 6 percent or 7 percent failed in the first year of operation.
As such, Garcia maintains that fracking represents a major threat to agriculture, the state’s No. 1 industry. As farmers in Butte County and beyond are heavily reliant on clean groundwater—and drought conditions are already placing a strain on water supplies—any potential contamination would be “a huge detriment to the farming community,” he said.
Stellar added that, beyond farming, all of Butte County relies on the Tuscan Aquifer for domestic use as well. “Potentially polluting huge aquifers is nonsensical to me,” she said. “We can’t live without water. We can live without crude oil—we’ll just have to live differently.”
Garcia takes heart in existing moratoriums on fracking around the nation, including the Los Angeles City Council’s 10-to-0 vote to ban fracking on Feb. 28, and New York’s statewide ban, which has been in place for six years.
Currently, there are between 10 and 20 active oil wells in Butte County, none of which are fracked. But that could change as natural gas prices rebound, Garcia said. “When those prices go back up, they’re going to be hitting some of these wells in Butte County,” he said.
In the meantime, Garcia said he believes it would be folly for Butte County to rely on SB 4 as an environmental safeguard. “Unfortunately, it’s still a very, very weak bill,” he said. “Vermont banned fracking in 2012. Now, that’s regulation.”
Including the press conference at the top of Oroville Dam, there are several ways to get involved with Frack-Free Butte County this week.
On Saturday, March 15, a bus will leave from the Butte College Chico Center at 10 a.m., taking protesters to a rally in Sacramento that will “let legislators know there are many thousands of people motivated to come from all corners of the state to say, ‘Stop fracking now!’” Stellar said. (Contact Garcia at 218-5133 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
On Sunday, March 16, CAN will host a campaign fundraiser at the Chico Women’s Club (592 E. Third St.) that will include live music, food, refreshments and a showing of the Josh Fox (of Gasland fame) documentary The Sky is Pink. Tickets are $10; go to Frack-Free Butte County’s Facebook page for more information (see column note).