California senators Holly Mitchell (D-SD26) and Mark Leno (D-SD11) have introduced legislation supporting a moratorium on fracking after previous efforts foundered on splits in the Legislature and opposition by Governor Jerry Brown.
SB 1132 would bring California into alignment with New York state, where a huge community-based movement finally succeeded in creating a de facto moratorium in 2008, which was extended by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2011, pending an exhaustive study which will not be completed until after the New York governor's re-election campaign this November.
Currently, California permits fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, well stimulation and other obscure scientific labels, under regulations being developed by a state agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which environmental groups accuse of being too pro-industry.
A California moratorium would expand a current state study to include the impacts of fracking on the state's ability to: meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals; impacts on the quality of the state's water supply; and economic, worker safety, and human health consequences.
The battle may be long and bureaucratic. If the bill becomes law and the study is finally completed, a panel of state experts then will consider whether state regulations are sufficient to protect human health and water quality, and not impede the curbing of greenhouse emissions, allowing the governor to lift the moratorium. In the long meantime, fracking would effectively be banned.
If the Legislature and governor support SB 1132, the battle over fracking could simmer through Gov. Brown's second and final term, and have a significant impact on his legacy as an environmental steward. The governor's office has parried environmentalist claims for over a year, claiming that concerns over fracking are exaggerated in comparison with other crises. The governor's office makes the case that fracking, by any name, is a net plus for jobs and the state's economy, and that its adverse effects can be mitigated through regulations.
The vast majority of environmentalists, as well as many in the scientific and academic communities, are skeptical of the governor's claims. Local community leaders are apprehensive about massive drilling in the vast Monterrey Shale deposits. Irate activists follow the governor to virtually all his public events, including the recent state Democratic convention, where delegates called for a moratorium by acclamation.
A question for Brown is how to expand the permanent legacy of his state, national and global efforts against climate change. His caution on fracking could shadow that impressive record. A several-year moratorium could suspend the threat of fracking while allowing Brown to focus his struggle towards a 100 percent renewable energy economy. Brown's California also might play a pivotal role - with Obama administration regulations and Chinese collaboration - in making the path to a clean energy economy irreversible.
Meanwhile, the fracking controversy is erupting in the Historic West Adams Community in South Central LA, a densely populated urban community with deep concerns about environmental justice. Community outrage over drilling plans by Freeport McMoRan helped trigger a 10-0 LA City Council vote in February to impose a citywide moratorium. Pressure is building on the County Supervisors to extend the moratorium county wide, which would build pressure on Sacramento to support the effort. One of SB 1132's principal authors, Sen. Holly Mitchell, represents the West Adams residents.
An additional factor behind the moratorium momentum is the unity of California environmental groups, responding to the fervent interest of their constituency. Last year, they splintered in conflicts over whether to demand a ban or a moratorium, in the end achieving only the promise of regulations by an agency long associated with the oil and gas industry.
Besides hammering the governor, the well-funded lobbyists and moneymen from the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), will be occupying the Capitol and legislators' district offices all year. They fear a California moratorium will be the next stage in their version of Mortal Kombat.