Not Just Fracking: Cut All Oil Drilling in California, Says Key Lawmaker

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Pump jacks and wells rise over an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation near McKittrick, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

This story includes a clarification. 

California lawmakers need to create a package of legislation that limits multiple kinds of oil drilling, not just hydraulic fracturing, if they want to respond effectively to the world's climate crisis, says the chairman of a key committee that regulates the industry.

"Fracking is a good place to start, and obviously it's going to make headlines," said state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Natural Resources and Water Committee.

But, he added, "It won't solve the entire problem of oil drilling in people's backyards. We've actually got to leave more of this stuff in the ground."

Last month, as climate change-driven wildfires were on their way to burning more than 4 million acres around the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to end sales of gasoline-powered passenger cars and trucks in California by 2035. Newsom then also called on state lawmakers to develop legislation that would eliminate new fracking licenses by 2024.

The moves could forever change California, home to one of the nation's largest oil producing, refining and consuming markets.

The day after Newsom's executive order, several lawmakers announced plans to introduce a ban on fracking when the next legislative session starts in December. The announcement, which garnered support from several environmental groups, included no specific details. Any such bill would need to go through Stern's committee.

"It's a great gesture," said Stern, who's running for re-election and supports a ban on fracking, but was not one of the lawmakers behind the announcement. "It's going to have a tough row to hoe in the Legislature."

Legislative Challenges

The challenges of approving new oil drilling regulations in California, which Stern calls a "petro-state," were recently underscored in the committee he chairs. The natural resources panel rejected legislation that would have called for setbacks — or buffer zones — between future oil drilling sites and homes, playgrounds and schools. The opposition came not just from the oil industry and Republicans on the committee, but from members of Stern's own party.

"We have a lot of Democrats with concerns about any restrictions on oil production," said Stern, who voted for the bill.

Several of the committee members who opposed the legislation have received significant contributions from the oil industry, a finding first reported by the left-leaning Jacobin magazine. The bill's death prompted outrage among environmentalists and community groups.

Fracking in California

Fracking is an oil well stimulation method that works to get fuel out of the ground by using water and chemicals to crack open geological formations. The injections allow petroleum and water under the ground to flow more freely.

The fossil fuel industry says the practice helps provide the country with a consistent source of domestic energy. Environmentalists say the chemicals used in the method lead to water and air pollution, as well as the potential contamination of drinking water. Several years ago, it came to light that state regulators in California mistakenly allowed oil companies to dispose of the fracking wastewater in aquifers tapped for drinking water that were supposed to be safeguarded.

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Fracking has become a hot-button issue in the presidential election, especially in Pennsylvania, a key swing state where it creates a lot of jobs. Democratic nominee Joe Biden says he does not oppose fracking, an assertion that President Trump ardently disputes.

The technique, along with other oil and gas drilling, mostly takes place on private land, but is regulated by state officials.

In California, fracking makes up a small portion of production in oil fields, many of which are in Kern County. Hydraulic fracturing led to the production of 2.3 million barrels of oil in the state in 2019, or 1.5% of California's oil production, according to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM).

Traditional oil and gas drilling made up 77% of the state's oil production in 2019, with cyclic steam work accounting for 21%.

Last July, California put in place a nine-month moratorium on new permits for fracking. During that time, the Department of Conservation asked Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to conduct an independent review of its pending well-stimulation permits.

Since the moratorium ended in April, CalGEM has handed out a series of new fracking permits. In fact, the agency approved a set of applications for the technique last Friday.

Pushing for a Compromise

Figuring out how to cut down on oil drilling is a discussion that state legislators, oil industry executives and labor leaders all need to be involved in, according to Stern, who helped create California's current regulations on fracking.

"We need people pushing the envelope," Stern said. "I think what the governor's laid out is prompting a much bigger conversation that's going to require some kind of grand bargain. If we're actually going to figure out what a managed decline looks like or what a real just transition is, we've got to bring labor in and have a big conversation about how to move past petroleum production."

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Stern expects several different oil regulating bills to emerge in the state Legislature when it is scheduled to reconvene in December, and says the state needs to have a serious discussion about what the future of the oil industry should look like.

"Maybe it doesn't look like the oil industry of the past and maybe folks like Chevron start to rethink their business model entirely," he said. "To me, that's the big victory: If we can actually change the business model of our oil majors here, not just notch a political win, but fundamentally change the dynamics globally."

To create a Green New Deal in California, the state needs to bring different interest groups together and stop pitting oil worker unions against the people who live near drilling sites, Stern added.

"It starts with workers and frontline communities," he said. "It's going to take coalition building and muscle. Now the real work begins."

Oct. 22: This story was adjusted to include a refined definition of hydraulic fracturing. 

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