Assembly committee OKs moratorium on fracking in California

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Three bills seeking to impose moratoriums on fracking in California won approval at the California Assembly Natural Resources Committee in Sacramento on April 29, an important milestone for environmentalists who ultimately plan to push for a permanent ban on the practice.

Assembly Bill 1301, introduced by Assembly Member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), is backed by a host of statewide environmental organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch, and Clean Water Action. That bill and AB 1323, similar legislation sponsored by Holly Mitchell of Culver City, seek to halt the controversial oil-and-gas extraction method in California until possible health and environmental impacts have been adequately reviewed.

“It’s an important step,” notes Adam Scow, California campaigns director for Food & Water Watch in San Francisco. “In theory, the quickest timeline the bill could pass is [sometime] this year.” He added, “Gov. Jerry Brown has the power to issue a moratorium now,” but “Brown is repeating industry talking points that fracking can be done safely.”

A third bill, AB 649, would create moratoriums on fracking only nearby sensitive sites such as aquifers or agricultural lands, but that proposal received less support from fracking opponents who believe it should be subjected to a blanket moratorium and ultimately banned. All three bills won approval from the Natural Resources Committee, and are now headed for the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is an oil and gas extraction method that utilizes high-pressure water and toxic chemicals to fracture shale deep underground. It’s prompted fierce opposition in New York, Pennsylvania and throughout western states, where fears about groundwater contamination and long-term ecological impacts are growing as the practice is more widely adopted.

“It uses huge amounts of water,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told the Bay Guardian in an interview. “It pollutes the water with chemicals that don’t even have to be disclosed, and the wastewater either stays underground and we don’t really know what happens to it, or it has to be disposed of through injection wells that are associated with earthquakes.”

And yet, powerful momentum is building in the petroleum industry around oil extraction from the Monterey Shale, a geologic formation estimated to contain 15 billion barrels of oil that would have been inaccessible but for technological advancements in fracking. The Western States Petroleum Association, a powerful industry lobby, placed the vast California fossil fuel reserve in the crosshairs in a mid-March report, along with the outright giddy pronouncement that “this oil, if prudently and safely developed, could dramatically change our state’s energy security picture for decades to come and usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity.”

All of which amounts to stringent opposition to bills that would impose a moratorium until health and environmental impacts can be carefully evaluated. According to this article in High Country News, that industry association spent $8.5 million last year lobbying state government.

While things still hang in the balance in California as far as fracking is concerned, the mad dash for shale oil has already transformed vast swaths of rural landscape in North Dakota, where oil production has shot up dramatically in recent years. According to a study released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, fracking and other oil and gas extraction practices result in the permanent removal of seven billion gallons of water from the hydrologic cycle each year in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.

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