Making California Frack-Free is Smart Politics

A fracking well on the Marcelllus Shale formation. | Photo: WCN 24/7/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Is it tilting at windmills to raise serious questions about the environmental deficits and social consequences of hydraulic fracturing in California (or anywhere)?

An out-of-state reader of my anti-frack column last week argued that I had raised my Don Quixote-like lance against a rock-solid technology that will solve more problems than it has (or will) create.

Given that his email arrived the same day that NOAA announced the Earth's atmosphere now contained 400ppm of carbon dioxide, a haunting boundary line that portends some significant changes in the planet's current flora and fauna, it struck me as a reasonable exercise to respond to his counters.

In good lawyer fashion, my interlocutor laid out three interrelated challenges, to wit:

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Natural gas deposits in California. | Image: Courtesy U.S. Energy Information Administration

What The Government Says
That my concerns for what I described as the "deleterious impact" of fracking on local air and water quality did not square with the assertions of former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that there was no evidence for such claims. It is fair to say, however, that the Obama's aggressive pursuit of energy production in the U.S. has led its political calculations to trump the scientific evidence. Researchers on the ground in Pennsylvania, like those in North Dakota and Texas, have demonstrated the negative impact on air quality, as well as water quality and quantity. Even Lisa Jackson's EPA recognized and responded to this threat. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, smack within the Marcellus Shale Formation, it moved quickly to mitigate the contamination of local groundwater supplies traceable to Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation's drilling in the area. This is not a unique incident. A peer-reviewed, 2011 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed what landowners have known for a long time -- that potable water wells can be contaminated through the fracking process. Drawing samples from 68 different well sites in the Marcellus Formation, Duke University scientists determined that in their northeastern Pennsylvania sites in particular, wells within a kilometer of a drilling site contained on average 17 times the amount of methane than those at a greater remove. There was no question about its source, either: "Deep gas has a distinctive chemical signature in its isotopes," argued Robert B. Jackson, Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change and director of Duke's Center on Global Change. "When we compared the dissolved gas chemistry in well water to methane from local gas wells, the signatures matched."

State Law vs. Federal Law
My reader also contended that a legislative ban on fracking was a non-starter because state law does not apply to federal lands; any effort on the part of Sacramento legislators to control hydraulic fracturing in the Golden State would have little effect. While it is true that the Bureau of Land Management has been quite willing to lease potential drill site on the lands that it manages in Monterey Shale Formation -- it does not own the whole of that massive oil-rich deposit. Moreover, maintaining water-quality standards in fact are a federal and state obligation that cut across property lines; if what happens upstream taints what flows downstream -- and this is as true above or below the surface -- then you can expect all sorts of lawsuits to be filed in the relevant court system. Indeed, the BLM just last month lost a court case in which a federal judge ruled that the federal agency had not assessed the potential environmental impact of fracking on water and wildlife in the Salinas Valley. This judicial decision only underscores why it is essential for the California legislature to control fracking so as to assert its authority to protect the health and well being of its citizens. And never forget the power of state-level action to force the feds to rethink their hitherto uncritical acceptance of hydraulic fracturing as an unalloyed good or to recall that Inside-the-Beltway politics are not the only politics it needs to consider. As the four-pack of anti-fracking bills that I discussed last week worked their way through the state house and senate in early May, the BLM suddenly decided to postpone indefinitely its May 22 sale of leases in oil-rich Fresno and Kern counties. It is conceding that it is now in a jousting match in which the odds are tilting against it.

Jerry Brown
But will the BLM's retraction energize a hitherto lethargic Governor Brown to move with the legislature to regulate or ban fracking in the state? My reader doubted it, arguing that the main reason the Chief Executive "stands mute" is because he knows that the only way for California stave off bankruptcy is get flush with oil royalties. That indeed may be part of the governor's calculation. But keep in mind that this state (or any other) only receives a small portion of the royalties generated on federal lands; in 2007 that amounted to $1.3 billion spread across all oil-and-gas producing states. Even if every penny of these dollars flowed into California's coffers, they'd hardly make a dent in this particular state's budgetary gap or redefine it budgetary politics.


None of my critiques above strike me as quixotic. Quite the reverse: they seem to build a case against fracking that is eminently practical, grounded, essential, and pressing.

It is this kind of realistic urgency that we will especially need now that the planetary atmosphere has crossed a threshold the Earth has not experienced in upwards of five million years, a level of carbon dioxide not seen since the Pliocene, when this was a much warmer place with considerably higher sea levels.

How we adapt to these large-scale changes, as well as the now-predicted sharp reduction of habitat for any number of species, the related contraction of land available for the production of many key human agricultural products such as coffee, cotton, timber, and chocolate, and serious questions about the climate-change accelerant that comes from fugitive methane emissions, ought to be driving public dialog around the world.

In California, we can jump-start this conversation immediately by asserting our right to ban hydraulic fracturing, reining in its use and thereby shrinking its greenhouse-gas footprint (and our own). That's a fight worth fighting.

Related: Natural Gas May Be Worse For Climate Than Feared

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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