California Lawmakers Propose Ban on Fracking, Other Oil Drilling Methods

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Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation in 2014
The bill, authored by state Sens. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, would prohibit new permits for hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and block companies from renewing existing permits for the controversial technique. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Two state lawmakers unveiled a proposal Wednesday that would gradually bring to a halt drilling methods that have produced about a fourth of California's petroleum production in its oil fields.

The bill, authored by state Sens. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, would prohibit new permits for hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and block companies from renewing existing permits for the controversial technique.

The proposal would do the same for several other oil production methods, but not for traditional oil and gas drilling, which is responsible for most petroleum production in California.

The techniques subject to the moratorium would be barred altogether starting in 2027.

"It is time that California's leaders take on the state's behemoth oil industry," Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement announcing the proposal along with the two state lawmakers. 

The council is one of six environmental groups that supports the bill. The organizations have emphasized for years that oil drilling poses dangers to the environment and public health — especially to communities of color and low-income residents. They note that some of the methods, like fracking, can cause earthquakes, water contamination and oil spills.

"Extracting massive amounts of oil, particularly with destructive techniques such as fracking, is totally inconsistent with California's commitment to a sustainable climate future," Wiener said.

"It's time to transition away from these oil extraction methods, protect our community's health and water supply, and create a brighter future for out state and our planet," he added.

Industry groups representing oil companies will likely lobby aggressively against any new limits on oil production.

The Western States Petroleum Association and the California Independent Petroleum Association have said in the past that proposals to ban fracking and other drilling techniques will mean oil workers will suffer and California's reliance on fuel from sources outside of the country will increase.

The groups say bans on oil drilling will hurt consumers; that demand for gasoline in the state is too high to cut down on oil production; and that California is not set up yet energize enough electric cars and will need to rely on fossil fuel for years.

They also say environmentalists have misled the public about the dangers of well stimulation often done deep under the ground, far away from drinking water sources, and in remote parts of Kern County.

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Hours after the proposal was released, the head of the California Independent Petroleum Association called the bill "legally questionable" and said it would kill thousands of union jobs.

"Shutting down energy production under the toughest regulations on the planet will devastate the economies of oil producing regions — especially the Central Valley — and make the Saudi royal family even richer while eliminating the industry that is investing in the innovation needed to significantly reduce the state's carbon footprint," said Rock Zierman, the association's president, in a statement.

Labor unions that represent oil industry employees have also raised concerns that the state curtailing petroleum production could hurt quality, high-paying blue-collar jobs.

The Wiener and Limón bill would also bar all new or modified permits for all oil and gas production, including the most traditional methods, from taking place within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, health facilities, dormitories and prisons by 2022.

"Oil production in and near our communities has had long-lasting health impacts," Limón said.

A similar effort to create buffer zones around oil and gas wells failed in the state Legislature last year after pushback from the oil industry and labor unions.

The bill also calls for the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), which regulates the industry, to help transition oil employees away from drilling. The division would offer incentives to well remediation contractors to hire former oil workers.

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state lawmakers to develop legislation that would eliminate new fracking licenses by 2024 — but at least one top state lawmaker wants to go further.

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State Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, chair of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, told KQED that state lawmakers needed to create a package of legislation that limits multiple kinds of oil drilling, not just fracking.

That's in part because the technique makes up a small portion of oil field production. The controversial oil well stimulation method works to get fuel out of the ground by using water and chemicals to crack open geological formations, injections that allow petroleum under the ground to flow more freely.

Hydraulic fracturing led to the production of 2.3 million barrels of oil in California, or 1.5% of the state's oil production, in 2019, according to CalGEM's most recent available data.

The state started issuing fracking permits in 2016 under Senate Bill 4. Last July, the state put in place a months-long moratorium on new fracking permits while independent experts conducted a review of the agency's pending well stimulation permits.

Cyclic steaming, which would also eventually be banned under the new bill, accounted for 21% of California's oil production in 2019. That method was the one used in connection with a massive petroleum release in a Kern County oil field, prompting state officials to issue a $2.7 million fine against Chevron.

But traditional oil and gas drilling, which the proposal would not ban unless it takes place near local communities, made up 77% of California's oil product in 2019.

Still, environmental groups praised the effort.

"The state should focus its attention on the drilling techniques that are most dangerous for California," said Juan Flores, community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which sponsored the bill.

Flores notes that oil production in California has been on the decline.

"Propping up a failing industry will hurt local economies, workers and residents in the long run," he said.