The year began with a gaggle of bills seeking to tighten rules on the controversial oil extraction practice known as fracking. As the legislative session winds to a close, one bill might actually become law, even as some environmental groups hope it doesn’t.
Fracking—or hydraulic fracturing—occurs when an oil operator injects a large volume of chemically treated water and sand into a well to loosen deposits that would otherwise be too expensive to extract. Fracking opponents complain that neighbors of stimulated oil wells often receive no notice as a result of loose oversight by the state.
A bill authored by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Thousand Oaks) would require oil operators to seek permits before stimulating a well by any means, including fracking. The new permitting system would force the public disclosure of the operator’s water source, the chemicals used, and other facts relevant to assessing environmental risk.
According to Pavley, the lack of disclosure surrounding fracking operations flows from the state’s inadequate laws.
“This bill will address serious unanswered questions about the safety and environmental risks of fracking,” she said in a recent statement.
But some environmental groups disagree that Pavley’s Senate Bill 4 will help the situation. Many of these groups unsuccessfully lobbied to stop fracking in California while scientists studied its effects on water and air quality. They now fear recent committee amendments to SB 4 could make it harder for environmentalists to challenge fracking in court.
Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said existing law requires the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources to analyze fracking under the California Environmental Quality Act. The agency has simply failed to do its duty, she asserted.
“When an agency is not carrying out the law it is charged with implementing, the logical course of action is to go to court to enforce it, which is what we are currently doing,” Siegel said. “It does not make sense for the legislature to roll back the law.”
Siegel also worried that SB 4’s permitting system, as proposed, could force cities and counties out of the business of regulating fracking. Several local governments, including Santa Barbara County, have adopted their own fracking rules within the past year.
SB 4 passed the Assembly on Sept. 11. The Senate must approve it one more time before the legislative session draws to a close on Sept. 13.