Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Study Hall: Governor Brown Wants to Get Schooled on Fracking

California Gov. Jerry Brown stops to talk to the news media on February 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. | Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Governor Jerry Brown is going back to school. So he implied last week when, at a renewable-energy confab in Goleta, he told a business-friendly audience that he was going to study up on hydraulic fracturing, the controversial method by which energy companies are exploiting vast stores of oil and gas buried deep beneath the surface. After hitting the books, the studious Governor promised, "I'll be on top of it."

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Careful analysis is a good thing, especially for any public official who professes to think carefully about public policy, environmental safety, and economic development. Brown's willingness to reflect on the Golden State's choices is something of a breath of fresh air compared to the impulsive actions of his gubernatorial peers.

Elected officials in Texas, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among many others, have ignored calls for greater transparency about the potentially dangerous process; deflected efforts to secure legislative oversight or regulation of this form of energy production; and in their rush to produce jobs in the short run -- not a bad thing, to be sure -- may well have jeopardized long-term public health and safety. At least Governor Brown thinks before he acts.

This virtue notwithstanding, it seems crucial to ask a relatively simple question: what exactly will the governor study?

Is it possible that he has not seen Josh Fox's "Gasland," (2010) the withering Academy Award-nominated documentary that helped alert its viewers to the disruptive consequences of fracking on rural communities across America?

Has he not been following the media-firestorm that erupted in its wake, most strikingly the New York Times' "Drilling Down" investigations that intensified the worry about this technology's impact on water quality and quantity? Or the 2011 Duke University research that concluded that methane used in hydraulic fracturing throughout Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region does indeed migrate into and thus contaminates drinking-water supplies.

What of the federal-government and state-level hearings that were called to probe the consequences of this industrial technique? Or the demands, inside and outside capital cities, that at a minimum the companies employing hydraulic-fracking technology reveal the chemical composition of the solutions that they inject at high pressure underground to fracture tight rock formations? (And is the governor aware, for instance, that last spring Democrats in Congress pushed to create a national, online database that citizens could access to learn what chemicals were being shot into their local bedrock, much as we are able to do in other contexts through the Toxic Release Inventory?)

Taken together, these scientific evaluations and political initiatives have tapped into a cultural wellspring of concern and fear; they have given a worried voice to those who feel they had no other outlet for expressing their anxieties. These critical reactions, when fused with the push-back from the energy companies certain that their actions cause no harm, has helped transform fracking into one of the nation's hot-button issues.

None of this should be news to Governor Brown, an omnivorous reader whose political radar is legendarily sensitive. It is newsworthy, however, that it took him two years into the national debate to admit he needs to learn more about it.

His belated reaction suggests that Brown is behind the times, not the best position from which to operate in Sacramento (or anywhere else). Such an admission also undercuts his leverage with the state legislature and lobby shops, whether corporate or environmental. If he does not yet know the issues, if in his words he will "be on top of it" -- meaning at some future time -- then why should they listen to him now?

A natural gas drill stands at a hydraulic fracturing site on January 18, 2012 in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Guv's admission is particularly puzzling because last year the California Assembly debated and approved a smart piece of legislation designed to regulate fracking (the Senate has not yet voted on it). The terms of AB 591, drafted by Representatives Bob Turner and Bob Wieckowski, are so important that they must be read in full:

1) Requires the operator of a well, before commencing drilling work, to file with to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) an application to drill, which must be approved by DOGGR.

2) Beginning January 1, 2012, requires an application to include specified information, such as (a) the type of exploration and production techniques to be used, (b) a list of the chemicals the operator intends to bring onsite for use in fracking and (c), the location of any known active seismic faults within five miles of the well.

3) Requires, after drilling commences, the operator to submit to DOGGR the following: a) A list of the chemicals injected into the well, including each chemical's purpose, the amount used and the concentration at which the chemical was injected.
b) The amount and source of well water used in exploration or production. c) Any radiological materials injected into the well.

4) Requires a well operator, if any chemical used is listed, pursuant to Proposition 65, as a chemical known to cause cancer or other harm, to notify of the chemical's use every property owner and occupant within one mile of the well.

5) Requires DOGGR to collect information and prepare maps regarding oil and gas wells and the location and extent of groundwater and surface water for irrigation, domestic, industrial, or wildlife purposes that might be affected and to post the maps on DOGGR's website.

AB 591, which passed the Assembly by a wide margin, has two targets. The most obvious is the energy companies and their proprietary (read: secret) solutions that they blast underground, an injection process that, depending on the ingredients, could have a disastrous impact on the water that flows out our taps, facets, and showers. Moreover, and depending on where the wellhead is located, this forceful blast of water, chemicals and sand could trigger some level of seismic activity in earthquake-prone California (as recently has happened in Youngstown, Ohio, not known to shake, rattle, and roll). These provisions seem like reasonable safeguards that any governor could, and should, get behind.

A smart politico ought as well to recognize the legislation's second target: the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Housed in the California Department of Conservation, this regulatory agency, as many of AB 591's provisions make clear, does not now keep, because it does not require operators to submit, a complete listing of the sites in which fracking technologies are employed; or a database of the chemical components employed in hydraulic fracturing statewide. DOGGR is thereby neither protecting the citizenry nor acting as a steward of our collective resources, a failure AB 591 is trying to rectify.

So why is Governor Brown not just cribbing these good ideas? Why not come out in forceful support of these well-reasoned reforms?

Perhaps his hesitancy can be explained by one element of DOGGR's actions that he has swiftly corrected. In his speech in Goleta, he bragged that when he learned that the division's leadership had delayed permits for oil-and-gas drilling, he stepped in and cleaned house:

I fired the people in charge and now our permits are dramatically up. California is the fourth-largest oil producing state and we want to continue that.

Brown's boast doesn't sound like a man ready to burn the midnight oil while boning up on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the Golden State. It looks as if he's already made up his mind.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here


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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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The governor might be studying some of the evidence that prompted one writer to assert that "some energy companies, state regulators, academics and environmentalists are reaching consensus ... that poorly built wells are to blame for some cases of water contamination" rather than the hydraulic fracturing process itself.