Fractured victory

Supervisors ban storage of fracking byproducts

Members of Frack-Free Butte County set up shop outside the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting back in February.

Members of Frack-Free Butte County set up shop outside the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting back in February.

file PHOTO by tom gascoyne

Butte County’s hydraulic-fracturing opponents scored a “second-best” outcome at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting on Tuesday (April 21), the eve of Earth Day.

The supervisors voted 4-1 to approve an ordinance prohibiting the storage and disposal of byproducts created by the controversial method of extracting oil and gas reserves commonly known as fracking. Supervisor Larry Wahl was the lone no vote and said the ordinance was “a backdoor attempt to prohibit fracking in Butte County.”

Fracking opponents agreed with that assessment. After the meeting, Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), said the ordinance, which would keep surrounding counties that allow fracking from depositing byproducts here, was “the second-best choice,” in light of the failure of passing an outright fracking ban.

A group called Frack-Free Butte County gathered signatures last year to put an initiative on the ballot, but County Counsel Bruce Alpert questioned the initiative’s wording and supervisors voted to delay a vote in favor of studying the ordinance. Missing the deadline to make it on the November 2014 ballot, it was ultimately put off until next June. In February, a county-written ordinance that would have banned the practice died when the board failed to vote on the matter after Supervisor Maureen Kirk’s motion to do so didn’t a receive a second.

Fracking, for those who’ve been asleep for the past two years, involves the injection of a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack underground shale formations and free the gas and oil deposits trapped beneath them. It has been linked to earthquakes and the contamination of underground water supplies. But it is also seen as a means of helping make the country energy independent.

After the ban failed to get support in February, supervisors instructed county staff to draw up an ordinance banning the storage of fracking byproducts, which Alpert said had already been done. As such, it came back before the board in a relatively short amount of time.

Six members of the audience addressed the board and said they supported the ordinance.

Grace Marvin, a member of Frack-Free Butte County, said her group applauded the staff for the ordinance it had composed and made an argument for why it was needed.

“Oil and gas companies and the California regulatory system have not only hidden the contents but also the disposal locations of fracking fluids, endangering many of our aquifers and related waterways,” she said.

BEC’s DiFalco said the ordinance addressed the community’s concerns about the potentially high risk of contamination of groundwater due to storing fracking byproducts.

The only objection came from Brian Hamman, an attorney representing Wild Goose Storage in Gridley, where it stores natural gas underground for a number of companies. Wild Goose does not frack, but Hamman told the supervisors the company had concerns about the proposed ordinance and asked why it was not notified of the matter.

Hamman asked that a vote on the ordinance be granted an extension so the company “could verify that everything looks OK from their engineering and legal departments. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be any objections to it, but they just want to confirm it.”

This came after Tim Snellings, the county’s development services director, told the supervisors that the ordinance would not affect Wild Goose and its operations.

Alpert assured the board that if it adopted the ordinance, changes could be made if it adversely affected Wild Goose. Supervisor Steve Lambert said the county should be careful because the company is one of the area’s biggest sources of property taxes.

A state ordinance addressing the practice of fracking goes into effect July 1 and calls for a use permit, an environmental impact report, advanced public notice and nearby water-well testing before, during and after a fracking operation. Local ordinances take precedent over the state law. There is no federal law addressing the practice.

According to a 2009 editorial in The New York Times, the federal government does not have the authority to regulate fracking. That’s because of a provision inserted into the 2005 federal energy bill by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former executive at Haliburton—the company that invented fracking in the 1940s.