THE BLOG

Can Brown Regulate Fracking in Kern?

03/06/2015 12:14 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Governor Jerry Brown's administration shut down 12 oil wells in the Central Valley this week amidst revelations that the carcinogen benzine has leaked into fracking waste water at seven hundred times higher than federal standards.

Brown has staked his opposition to a ban or moratorium on fracking by arguing for what he calls "the toughest regulations in the country" aimed at the oozing center of California's oil industry, in Kern County. The effectiveness of those regulations has come under fire from many environmentalists. Brown's answer is that the regulatory overhaul is only beginning. Last year California shut down eight injection wells which have not been reopened.

The Legislature is set to hold hearings on Tuesday Mar. 10 to revisit the 1982 political decision, under a former Republican administration, to delegate federal monitoring of its water quality to the state. In 2011, a federal audit documented a systemic lapse in oversight by the state's watchdog agency (the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR.) The federal EPA administrator says "there isn't any system (of record-keeping) at all.

Would the federal EPA actually intervene to restore the California program to federal control? Obama find Brown in violation of environmental standards? That's impossible to imagine, but the feds have put the state on a short leash to implement safeguards of the state's drinking water.

Many environmentalists charge that the failures expose the inadequacies of Brown's claim to be regulating fracking. Nearly all the waste water samples from 329 fracked oil wells showed benzene levels above both state and federal standards. A San Francisco Chronicle review in February revealed 171 cases where DOGGR permitted injections into protected aquifers, that that the agency issued improper permits for 2,021 wells injecting steam into aquifers.

The confrontation over fracking is sharpest in Kern County where 80-90 percent of the state's oil and gas drilling is centered. Kern is "another country" where the oil oligarchs dominate, much as the cotton barons dominated Mississippi on the verge of the Sixties civil rights revolution. Kern was the subject of Upton Sinclair's Oil! (1927) and the film on which it was based, There Will Be Blood (2007). The leading company in Kern's oil oil fields today is California Resources, a branch of Occidental Petroleum.

The industry has been accused of "fracking the poor," because a majority of Kern's residents are Latino, 22.5 percent overall live in poverty, and 69 percent living within a mile of fracked oil wells are people of color. According to health specialist Seth Shonkoff, the state has failed to carry out adequate health tests in the area and the industry doesn't disclose, measure or monitor cumulative air emissions. The San Joaquin community hospital center, affiliated with UC Davis, says Kern, "Has one of the highest cancer rates of any region, both across the state and nation. Unfortunately, in the next ten years, new cancer cases in Kern are expected to double."

The Brown administration is correctly regarded as the nation's pacesetter in clean energy programs and environmental laws. Will its Achilles' heel be Kern County? It will be a tall order for incoming DOGGR head Steve Bohlen. After all, if the Brown administration can't enforce the law in Kern, the heralded effort to regulate fracking will become a mirage. At a Bakersfield hearing last week, the oil lobby was seen as pushing back hard against any new regulations. "They feel aggrieved," says one observer at the proceedings, because after doing business one way -- outside the law -- and now they're being told that things are changing, after about sixty years."

The State Senate's Democratic majority currently is hobbled by a vociferous rearguard faction of pro-business, pro-fracking members mainly from the Central Valley. The lobbyist for California Resources (Occidental) and the fossil fuel interests generally is former Republican Sen. Sam Aanestad (R. Grass Valley) who earned a zero on the California League of Conservation Voters' last scorecard. Democrat senator Michael Rubio resigned his Fresno seat in 2013 to become the Sacramento lobbyist for Chevron. Henry Perea (D. Fresno) continually fights to exempt the fossil fuels industry from being brought under the state's carbon pricing system (known as cap-and-trade). The pattern is reminiscent of the national Democratic party's frictions with the southern Dixiecrats during the civil rights movement.

Kern has another option besides compliance with the law, based on decades of resistance. They can drag their feet until Brown and his environmental team leave office in three years, and gamble on a post-Brown administration. What would the feds do in that case?