Oil

Thursday, Aug 23 2012 09:41 AM

Bills to regulate fracking die in Sacramento

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Two bills proposing new rules for fracking in California died last week in Sacramento, turning industry attention away from lawmakers and toward state regulators working on new guidelines of their own.

One of the bills that stalled Aug. 16 in the Senate Appropriations Committee would have forced oil companies to disclose data on where and when oil and gas wells are fracked, how much water is used in the process and what happens to the water afterward. The other bill sought a moratorium on California fracking until the state implements new rules.

Environmentalists and some lawmakers expressed disappointment in the bills' fate. Industry representatives did not, saying it was best to leave rule-making to the state Department of Conservation, which plans to release draft regulations on fracking by year's end.

"While we will wait to see what those regulations look like, we think those agencies are the appropriate place for this conversation to take place," industry spokesman Tupper Hull, vice president of the trade group Western States Petroleum Association, wrote in an email.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, injects sand, large amounts of water and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals underground to break up rock formations to release oil and natural gas. The process is credited with opening access to vast petroleum reserves, though environmentalists contend that it threatens groundwater, consumes too much water and may induce seismic activity.

California has no rules specific to fracking, and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which is part of the Department of Conservation, does not track the practice. DOGGR does require, however, that frack wells be built to the same standards as other wells.

Fracking regulation in the state has become an increasingly political issue. Last spring, when the department was pitching its annual budget, lawmakers insisted that officials there come up with rules specific to the practice, leading to a series of listening sessions on fracking and plans for an independent study of fracking.

Three bills, three approaches

Even before state regulators began working on new rules, legislators were considering how to govern fracking. In all, three bills were introduced.

One of the bills, proposed by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would have forced oil companies to notify nearby residents of upcoming frack jobs. Opposed by industry because of the conflict it could create, it died earlier this year.

The moratorium bill was introduced by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, D-Marina Del Rey. Environmentalists embraced the bill but the oil industry opposed it.

The bill considered most accommodating to the industry -- and which some thought had the best chance of becoming law -- was originally introduced last year by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont. It would have forced oil companies to disclose much information that has been secret. (Some companies have since begun disclosing certain fracking information; it is available online at fracfocus.org.)

Wieckowski said Wednesday that although he was disappointed, his efforts may yet prove helpful to regulators as they try to craft new fracking rules.

Even so, he plans to reintroduce the bill in some form next during the next legislative session.

"I don't think that DOGGR can do in regulations all the things that we have in statute," he said.

As to what stalled his bill, Wieckowski said he ran out of time trying to build consensus among environmental groups.

"We've come pretty close," he said. "I thought I had a deal."

Rock Zierman, head of the trade group California Independent Petroleum Association, said the industry never intervened to kill the bills, even as it ultimately opposed all three.

What may have doomed the Wieckowski bill, he said, were the many amendments that were proposed late in the process.

"Unfortunately, these bills became a Christmas tree that everyone wanted to put all their ideas on," Zierman said.

Wait and see

Kristin Lynch, Pacific region director of Food & Water Watch, which supports a statewide moratorium on what it considers the unsafe practice of fracking, said skepticism remains high within the Washington-based consumer advocacy nonprofit.

She said the group has little confidence in DOGGR's ability to enforce any new rules on fracking.

"I think leaving it up to DOGGR is problematic in that they've shown themselves either unwilling or incapable of monitoring what's going on," she said.

A spokesman for Pavley, Chuck Dalldorf, said the senator may introduce a fracking bill next year, depending what regulators come up with.

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