Fracking debate continues

Planning Commission kicks matter to its next meeting

Butte County Planning Commissioner Mary Kennedy says a ban on fracking would be “symbolic.”

Butte County Planning Commissioner Mary Kennedy says a ban on fracking would be “symbolic.”

PHOTO by karen laslo

Butte County planning commissioners debated an ordinance to ban the oil and natural gas extraction process known as fracking last week, finally tabling a measure they said might be purely symbolic.

And if an ordinance that would ban fracking in Butte County is a symbolic gesture—as some argue—the importance of the symbolism to the state’s oil-and-gas industry was clear at the Oct. 23 meeting. The commission faced upfront industry lobbying from statewide groups opposed to the ban.

After hearing testimony from more than 30 people, the commission voted 4-0 to table the matter until its Dec. 11 meeting. (Commissioner Harrel Wilson was absent.) Perhaps more telling, the panel also voted 4-0 to pare down the draft ordinance by about 95 percent in order to consider an abbreviated version that would ban only the disposal of fracking byproducts in Butte County.

The Board of Supervisors can still adopt or reject the original ordinance—which was written by county attorneys—but the Planning Commission must first make a recommendation.

“I don’t know why we’re in such a hurry to do this,” said Commissioner Mary Kennedy, noting that a ban in Butte County, where there’s no hydraulic fracturing currently underway, is largely “symbolic.”

The ordinance under consideration came about after the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in April in favor of a ban on fracking or new well-stimulation methods in Butte County. Earlier in the year, the Butte County Water Commission had recommended a zoning amendment that would require a conditional-use permit for fracking.

Ban proponents note the numerous instances of groundwater contamination in areas where fracking occurs.

“When they destroy your water, it’s forever,” county Water Commissioner John Scott told the Planning Commission.

There also was growing concern about whether wastewater from fracking operations near Butte County could be disposed in any of the 200 abandoned gas wells here.

Chico State geology professor Todd Greene, who opened the Planning Commission meeting by giving a PowerPoint presentation on fracking, indicated that wastewater may in fact be the bigger worry. The process of fracturing rock formations deep in the Earth to extract oil and gas deposits produces what’s called “flowback”—a mix of brine and fracking fluids that may even contain radioactive matter.

“Wastewater is what has the potential for impacts to water resources,” Greene said. “What do you do with what is usually a toxic mix?”

Wastewater typically is trucked out for disposal in an injection well elsewhere or treated and reused in some way.

But the state oil and gas industry opposes restrictive legislation, even in counties where the possibility of fracking seems remote.

Dave Quast, the California field director for Energy In-Depth, the public-outreach program run by the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), urged the Planning Commission to reject the ordinance. Quast said fracking is already “heavily regulated” to ensure safety.

“The ordinance would be a symbolic gesture at best,” Quast said.

Prior to the meeting, the panel received correspondence opposing the ban from a Los Angeles law firm representing the industry-funded political action committee Californians for Energy Independence.

A citizen campaign run by the group Frack-Free Butte County has been successful in organizing a 2016 ballot initiative that would also ban fracking. Commissioner Alan White wondered whether there should be a “sunset provision” that would expire any ordinance passed now before a 2016 referendum.

But Frack-Free Butte County Treasurer Joni Stellar says it would be a mistake to expire the county’s drafted ordinance if it were adopted as is or improved. She said it’s superior to the citizens’ ordinance, that it’s “far more detailed and litigation-proof.”

“The county had more time and more talent, and that makes a difference,” Stellar said after the meeting.

See for more from Layton on the status of the Butte County fracking ban.