California Could Phase Out Fracking, Other Oil Drilling Under Bill Headed for First Test in Legislature

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Pump jacks in 2014 over the Monterey Shale formation
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)

Legislation that would gradually phase out fracking and other extraction methods that account for most of California's petroleum production faces its first big test in Sacramento on Tuesday.

The nine-member Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee is set to vote on a proposal, Senate Bill 467, that would bar new permits for hydraulic fracturing, cyclic steaming, steam flooding and water flooding.

The legislation would begin taking effect in 2023 and also prohibit renewing existing permits for fracking and the other targeted methods, which a committee bill analysis says accounts for an estimated 80% to 95% of the state's oil production.

In its current form, the measure would ban all the targeted methods by 2035.

The bill would also ban issuance of new permits for drilling or other oil production activities within 2,500 feet of homes, schools and health care facilities.

The proposal would fundamentally shift energy policy in California, which produced 144 million barrels of oil last year — seventh highest in the United States.

Getting the bill to the governor's desk will not be easy.

"It will be a huge political lift to get it across the finish line," said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, one of the bill's co-authors.

Whether the bill gets past its first committee hearing will depend on the votes of several Democrats on the panel.

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Three panel members are expected to vote yes on the bill. State Sens. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, are among the proposal's co-authors. State Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, the panel's chairman, has been an outspoken advocate for cutting California oil production as long as workers in the industry are not abandoned.

The two Republicans on the committee, state Sens. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, and Brian Jones, R-El Cajon, are expected to vote no.

That leaves state Sens. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, Ben Hueso, D-Chula Vista, Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and John Laird, D-Santa Cruz.

Eggman, Hueso and Hertzberg are considered more moderate and business friendly than some of their Democratic colleagues on the panel. In fact, Hueso and Hertzberg were among members of the same committee who last August voted against a proposal to create new setback requirements for drilling near communities.

Laird served as secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency under former Gov. Jerry Brown from 2011 to 2019. The agency oversees the California Geologic Energy Management Division, which regulates oil and gas drilling.

Efforts to ban fracking in California have failed in the past, but this one may get support from the state's top elected official. Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on lawmakers to develop legislation to end the issuance of new fracking licenses by 2024.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tours Chevron's Cymric oil field west of Bakersfield in July 2019, where a spill of more than 800,000 gallons flowed into a dry creek bed. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

In February, Wiener and Limón unveiled their proposal. The measure has drawn strong support from environmental justice and climate change activists.

"SB 467 presents a vision for California's energy future," said Kobi Naseck with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which is based in Emeryville and the Kern County town of Delano. The group is one of the bill's sponsors.

"At the hearing on Tuesday, we'll be watching to see which senators are ready to protect the millions of Californians living on the front lines of oil and gas extraction and which are still willing to believe fossil fuel executives' lies, in denial about the climate emergency, and vote against their constituents," Naseck said.

Environmental activists have long argued that the oil industry contributes to climate change and hurts the environment and the health of people living near wells and other production facilities. They say fracking and other methods can increase earthquake activity, pollute the air and water, and carries the risk of significant uncontrolled crude petroleum releases like one that has continued for nearly two decades in Kern County's Cymric oil field.

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The industry's perspective could not be more different.

The bill "would result in a near complete shutdown of California's oil and gas production industry, will cost the state billions in lost revenue and legal liability and will lead to massive job loss," the Western States Petroleum Association wrote in comments to the committee.

That group and another that represents the industry, the California Independent Petroleum Association, say that curtailing oil production will drive up the cost of gasoline, increase the state's reliance on foreign oil sources and kill jobs in Kern County and other oil-producing areas.

Opposition also comes from a long list of labor unions and San Joaquin Valley business and community groups.

"We ask you to stand with California's blue-collar families and stop enabling extremist politics at the expense of the livelihood of working families," the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California said in its comments on the bill.

Fracking uses water and chemicals injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to shatter them and make it easier to recover crude petroleum trapped there. Cyclic steaming is a method by which crews inject high-pressure steam deep underground, again to break up rock formations and ease extraction of oil.

Steam flooding is a related technique that raises the temperature of deposits of thick crude oil. Water flooding involves injecting water into oil wells to maintain pressure in an underground reservoir. It is also used to push oil toward wells. State officials say there are more than 4,000 active water flooding wells in California.