State Senate Democrats Crack Down on Fracking

Fracking - EPAJan. 18, 2013

By Dave Roberts

Despite the more than three-decade safety record of hydraulic fracturing in California, Democrats served notice last week that they will be cracking down on the energy-production method in the coming year.

The frack fight was led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, at the Jan. 9 Senate Rules Committee hearing. The committee was considering the reappointment of Mark Nechodom as director of the Department of Conservation, which he has headed for the past year. That department oversees oil and gas drilling, among other responsibilities, and is drafting new regulations on the fracking industry.

One of Steinberg’s concerns is that the proposed regulations would not require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process. Nechodom responded that the law allows companies to keep secrets from their competition.

“This is a very important and somewhat dicey issue,” said Nechodom. “If you do not give credence to the notion of trade secrets, that the companies using this technology and evolving this technology fairly rapidly really have no excuse not to disclose, then that prejudices the answer. But if you acknowledge that there is a trade secret component, just as there is with Coca-Cola or many other products where we have the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and actively protect those trade secrets in balance with the protection of public health and safety, then that’s where we are on the horns of a dilemma here.

“I think you strike the balance at disclosing sufficiently so that third-party analysis that is trusted can tell the public if it’s safe, not safe or should be in limited use. We do not have those mechanisms in place. We do not have the authority to set up that. If we were to require in our regulations disclosure of the ingredients and the recipe, which is the trade secret, then we as a public agency are subject to a Public Record Act request, which vitiates the trade secret provision.”

Not Coca-Cola

That answer did not satisfy Steinberg.

“This is not Coca-Cola to me,” he said. “How to differentiate the taste of Coca-Cola from Pepsi is a very different question of whether or not the brew of chemicals injected into the ground might affect the health and safety of a community because of water-supply contamination. So I’m not sure that the comparison you make is apropos. To me, health and safety ought to be preeminent.”

Steinberg called for the imposition of emergency regulations on fracking until permanent regulations are implemented.

Nechodom responded that the emergency regulations would be an over-reach: “It would require us to produce evidence that we actually have evidence of some kind of manifest damage or an emergency by doing this.”

A dissatisfied Steinberg responded, “It doesn’t sound like you’re erring on the side of public health when there are all kinds of concerns raised.”

Frustration

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is also concerned. She wants a moratorium on fracking until permanent regulations are in place.

“I recognize, having been here before and having crossed swords a little bit with the oil industry, that they are a very fearsome adversary when they want to be,” she said. “I think that’s a part of the frustration that a lot of us have been feeling over this whole issue of fracking. The impacts of shooting unknown chemicals at very high intensity into hundreds of miles of the earth’s core is a scary proposition for a lot of us. Particularly without really understanding it or knowing exactly what’s being shot down through the ground.

“So I think for a lot of us our concern is based upon perhaps a fear. And the fact that it’s been done in secret. And that this is something that the public is concerned about. There’s a difference between Coca-Cola, which the only thing it’s going to do is mess up your stomach, given what’s in it, versus messing up the planet. And fracking could very well have those kinds of consequences. There’s a lack of confidence in what is going on in this industry. The only way the public is going to be satisfied that they are protected is if we get full and complete information.”

Steinberg and Jackson are also concerned that companies need only provide 10 days’ notice to the department before they can begin fracking a well. Jackson suggested extending that to a six-month wait.

Asked Sen. Bill Emerson, R-Redlands, who said he supports Nechodom’s work in developing regulations, “Can you assure us that the barrier of our drinking water would be safe under the scientific provisions that you would implement in our hydraulic fracturing system?”

Nechodom responded that there is very little danger of drinking water contamination because aquifers are less than 1,200 feet deep while most fracking operations occur 4,000-8,000 feet below ground, and there are several layers of solid rock between the two.

“The likelihood that fracking fluid, oil, saline water, anything that would be from a geological formation that we are interested in, being in contact with the aquifer, is extremely low,” he said. “We currently do not have evidence that fracking chemicals have been introduced to our drinking water aquifers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking very carefully. And I believe increased scrutiny, that’s not only in our regulations but also ahead of us in coming years, is absolutely necessary.”

A representative of the Western States Petroleum Association, whose members are responsible for the 638 fracking wells in California, offered Nechodom “condolences on him being in a position of an issue of such hysteria and controversy.”

Asked for response to Steinberg and Jackson’s concerns, Tupper Hull, WSPA vice president for strategic communications, said, “Our view is the [Department of Conservation’s] Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resource’s effort to draft new regulations for hydraulic fracturing is the appropriate place for this issue to be addressed. Calls for moratoriums or emergency regulations of hydraulic fracturing are premature, especially in light of the fact the technology has been used in California for many decades and has never been linked to any hazard or risk to the environment in California.”

Assurance

Despite Nechodom’s efforts to satisfy Steinberg and Jackson that his department will do due diligence in developing fracking regulations — and despite an outpouring of support for Nechodom by both fracking industry officials and environmentalists — Steinberg held Nechodom’s reappointment hostage until he received assurance in writing that his concerns will be addressed.

“You said that in terms of the hierarchy of priority that health and safety comes before trade secrets,” Steinberg said to Nechodom. “That’s not in the draft [regulations]. I would like written acknowledgement that you and the administration stand behind that hierarchy. I will await that before we decide to take this up for a vote on the floor.”

Nechodom provided that letter on Friday. And at the start of Monday’s Senate floor session, Steinberg urged a vote in support of Nechodom’s appointment. The senators duly complied, 34-0.

Nechodom plans to begin holding meetings next month to develop the final regulations. The process is estimated to take eight to 10 months.

7 comments

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  1. Laer Pearce
    Laer Pearce 18 January, 2013, 09:29

    Last Tuesday in Newport Beach, WSJ editorial writer Steven Moore told a PRI/Lincoln Club luncheon about the impacts of fracking legislation. New York has banned the practice. Pennsylvania hasn’t. So Pennsylvania oil producers routinely “dip their straw in New York’s milkshake,” fracking away to extract oil from the rich shale deposits. It would take one long straw to pull this trick on California, but the trick the legislature is considering is crueler by far. With fracking hyper-regulation, California will produce even less fuel, making energy costs even higher. North Dakota, which allows fracking, just passed California to become the nation’s #1 energy producer. How much further down this critical ranking does the legislature want to push us?

    Reply this comment
  2. Jeannie
    Jeannie 18 January, 2013, 14:55

    I am totally against more taxation, but if they added a $3 a barrel tax, I would bet (cautiously) the Dems would start allowing more drilling. More and more people I talk to are talking about leaving the state.

    Reply this comment
  3. daniel
    daniel 18 January, 2013, 19:28

    Can Mr. Roberts provide his source for the 30 year safety record of fracking? According to an article in examiner and one in high country news fred starrh an almond grower in bakersfield was awarded $8.5 million because Aera didnt line their ponds. The other complaint is that the oil industry is largely unmonitored but highly regulated and the industry ignores the regs because few inspectors are around. Which is right, if either?

    Reply this comment
  4. BobA
    BobA 18 January, 2013, 23:05

    Jeannie:

    At that price, you’re talking about $6/gal for the winter blend gasoline and $8/gal for the summer blend. Of course uncle “Scam” will want a piece of the action so tack on another dime or two to the overall price.

    Here’s the likely result over time, as I see it, for people who can afford to leave: a mass exodus from the state of California as those higher fuel prices spreads throughout every part of California’s economy and gets passed on to the consumer. People will drastically reduce their spending as a result which will send California into a serious and prolonged recession. That portends certain economic disaster for the state of California.

    The state government will have little choice but to continue raising taxes to make up for the lost tax revenue as more and more businesses exit California for a friendlier tax environment and taking their jobs along with them. This will also further decimate an already shrinking middle class causing the state’s unemployment rate to soar to heights probably not seen since the last great depression. And as a result, those without the means to leave the state will very likely end up on the welfare rolls and thus further exacerbating the state’s already woeful financial situation.

    Bottom line: slapping a $3 dollar tax on any new sources of fuel will only result in a death sentence for California.

    Reply this comment
  5. Hondo
    Hondo 19 January, 2013, 20:36

    Here is a way for Kali to balance their budget and to help solve the pension wall of debt. Fracking has a long history of use and safety. A win win win solution that is cast aside by the dems.
    Hondo…

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  6. Dave Roberts
    Dave Roberts 20 January, 2013, 16:15

    Daniel,
    The info on the more than three-decade safety record of hydraulic fracturing in California came from the Dept of Conservation fracking website: http://www.conservation.ca.gov/dog/general_information/Pages/HydraulicFracturing.aspx

    It states: “In California, hydraulic fracturing has been used as a production stimulation method for more than 30 years with no reported damage to the environment.”

    Reply this comment
  7. David
    David 24 January, 2013, 16:56

    Congrats on some very good reporting.

    Reply this comment

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