POLITICS
09/12/2013 07:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2013

Environmental Groups Bail On California Fracking Bill

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WASHINGTON -- California passed what is arguably the toughest bill regulating hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the country on Wednesday, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is expected to sign it into law. But he'll be doing so without the support of the country's biggest environmental groups.

The bill, SB4, will require oil and gas companies to obtain permits in order to drill wells for fracking -- a controversial process by which a high-pressure stream of water, sand, and chemicals is used to tap into oil and gas reserves in shale formations. The bill also requires companies to publicly disclose the chemicals they are using and requires monitoring and research on potential environmental impacts. It directs the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to issue regulations for fracking by Jan. 1, 2015.

A number of environmental groups in the state supported the bill as it was initially passed in the Assembly at the end of May, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action and the Environmental Working Group. But the groups revoked that support this week, after the version that the state Senate passed on Friday tacked on several provisions that the groups said changed the bill too much for them to support it.

"I was sorry to have to take the position we did," David Pettit, director of the southern California air program at NRDC, told The Huffington Post. "I just thought the risks were too great."

Specifically, Pettit and other environmental groups balked at a provision that they say could allow DOGGR to waive the requirement under the existing California Environmental Quality Act for an environmental impact analysis to be conducted of proposed drilling sites before granting approval. The groups also objected to a line that says that the state "shall allow" fracking to continue while regulations are being drafted. Pettit said that, without those changes, SB4 had the potential to be the "strongest fracking bill in the country."

"There are a bunch of really good things in that bill we wanted to see enacted," said Renee Sharp, the research director at Environmental Working Group, based in Oakland. "But we're very, very uncomfortable with this particular bill as it is being signed." Sharp also cited concerns about rules that would come from DOGGR; the Environmental Working Group filed a lawsuit against the department last year over alleged failures to conduct adequate environmental reviews for oil and gas permits. "We don’t have a lot of faith in DOGGR to put regulations in the books that are very good," said Sharp.

An analysis of the bill posted by the state Assembly, however, disputes that interpretation, noting that the "legislative intent … is clear: the division (i.e., DOGGR) and all other agencies (state or local) are not absolved from complying with any other provision of existing laws, regulations, and orders (including court orders)." In response to the concern about the "shall allow" line, the analysis also points to another line in the bill that states that fracking will only be allowed to continue "provided all of the following conditions are met," and then lays out those conditions. Requirements include that DOGGR conducts an environmental impact report and that the companies meet the other provisions laid out in the law.

The bill's Senate sponsor, Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), defended the legislation in a statement to HuffPost, noting that fracking is already happening in California right now "with no regulation or oversight." "With SB 4, these hidden industrial activities will finally be regulated with meaningful environmental review and mandatory mitigation, as well as public disclosure of all chemicals and well locations, groundwater monitoring, neighbor notification and other safeguards," Pavley said. "Lawyers on all sides will come up with worst-case scenarios of how language in legislation functions. Their job is to find potential ambiguities in a bill and exploit those. However, the intent of this bill is clear."

Some other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Food and Water Watch, opposed the bill even before the amendments were made last week. "It started off as a dangerously weak bill that won't protect California or our environment from fracking," said Zack Malitz, a campaign manager at CREDO Action, a California-based progressive group that also opposed the bill. "It will only provide political cover to the industry and its allies, who will claim that fracking is safely regulated."

While critical of the bill, many environmentalists were quick to offer support for Pavley, whom they feted as a "major environmental champion."

"We do believe she was really trying to get the best possible bill," said Sharp. "We just very strongly disagree with those decisions that were made at the last minute."

The office of Gov. Brown has said he intends to sign the bill into law.

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