Hit the road, frack

County supervisors move to ban controversial gas extraction method

David Garcia, left, and Willow Dejesus collect signatures at the Chico Saturday farmers market for an initiative that would ban fracking in Butte County.

David Garcia, left, and Willow Dejesus collect signatures at the Chico Saturday farmers market for an initiative that would ban fracking in Butte County.

file photo by karen Laslo

The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract underground oil and gas reserves is well on the way to getting banned in Butte County. On Tuesday (April 8), the Board of Supervisors voted in favor of moving forward on crafting a zoning ordinance, as recommended by the county water commission, that would require a use permit for the practice that is more commonly known as fracking.

That practice has been linked to water and soil contamination and a local initiative effort to ban the method is currently in the works. But Butte County Supervisor Steve Lambert proposed and then made the motion for the county to ban fracking because of the environmental degradation with which it is associated.

There are 26 active natural gas wells in the county and about 200 abandoned gas wells. County Water and Resource Conservation Director Paul Gosselin told the board that there is no reported fracking currently underway in Butte County and that the 26 active gas wells supply about .002 percent of the state’s overall production.

“In this region, the geology we have isn’t really conducive to fracking practices,” Gosselin said.

The vast majority of fracking occurs in Kern and eastern Los Angeles counties, he said, but as the practice has increased in the past four years, concerns have been raised statewide.

That concern led to the passage last year of Senate Bill 4, which requires that if the owner or operator of an existing, new or abandoned gas well wants to frack, a permit needs to be issued by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. Critics say the law is much too lenient.

The supes’ vote came on the same day another bill, Senate Bill 1132, passed through its first stop in a senate committee. The bill would place a statewide moratorium on fracking until a study is completed and the practice is determined safe.

During the public-comment portion of the local meeting, the vast majority of speakers opposed fracking. The first one, Loretta Torres, was the exception.

Torres said she has a gas well in Glenn County that is 5,000 feet deep, has been in production for the past seven years and is operated safely by a company out of Colorado. She said any effluent escaping from the well is placed into containers on the property.

“They are just really on top of this,” she said. “I think a lot of this scariness in the nation is from hydraulic fracturing that was done like, say, in Pennsylvania.”

Torres was followed by Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. “A year ago many of us did not know fracking was taking place so extensively in California and we started to wonder about the concern here locally,” she said. “The point I’d like to make today is that there is an imminent threat from fracking in our region and Butte County.”

She said many of the 200 inactive wells have the potential to be stimulated for production via fracking.

When the supervisors took up the discussion, Lambert mentioned the environmental disaster that had taken place in the tiny Mojave Desert town of Hinkley, which led to a total of $628 million in settlements from Pacific Gas & Electric and the basis of the movie Erin Brockovich.

Lambert said his cousin had died as a result of exposure to hexavalent chromium, which was used in PG&E cooling towers that the company employed in the transmission of natural gas beginning in 1952 and ending in 1966.

“Common-sense-wise, we are disrupting things if we chip away at our foundation all day long. Sooner or later our house is going to fall down,” Lambert said.

Then he explained how the industrial use of chemicals had affected him personally.

“As you all know, I’m a pretty conservative guy,” he said, “but I think common sense steps all over that stuff and says, ‘Hey, listen, we all live in this house, and if you take the foundation away, we are just going to crumble. I would favor, in all honesty, a ban.”

He then made a motion to direct staff to develop an ordinance to ban fracking. The motion passed 4-1 with Supervisor Larry Wahl the lone holdout.

After the meeting, DiFalco said she was happy with the outcome.

“We are very excited and a little bit surprised,” she said. “When we began the effort, it seemed like for the supervisors a ban would not be politically acceptable. We had met with the supervisors over the past year to help them understand the practice.”

She said Gosselin had asked her to head up the effort to draft the language of the proposed ordinance.

Joni Stellar, who is one of the activists behind the initiative process, said the effort to gather 7,605 valid voter signatures would continue. She pointed out that Supervisor Doug Teeter had mentioned at the meeting that the board needs the vote of the people to really ban the practice of fracking.

“The will of the people,” she said, “is basically the rule of the land.”