Los Angeles Times

No progress on fracking ban

Gov. Newsom is missing in action from effort to curtail oil drilling and wean California off fossil fuels.


Abill that would have outlawed fracking and dramatical­ly curtailed oil and gas drilling in California died Tuesday, during its very first committee hearing. This wasn’t a surprise. Previous bills to limit oil and gas production, particular­ly near homes and schools, have failed in the Legislatur­e amid fierce opposition from the fossil fuel industry and trade unions.

But this year was supposed to be different. Last fall, amid a record-breaking year for wildfires, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared: “This a climate damn emergency.” He committed to accelerate efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and counter the effects of a warming planet.

To great fanfare, Newsom came out with a far-reaching executive order to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. That included his commitment to work with the Legislatur­e this year to ban new permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by 2024 to protect communitie­s living near oil and gas drilling sites as well as trimming the state’s production of fossil fuels.

Fracking involves shooting a pressurize­d mix of water, sand and chemicals deep undergroun­d to extract oil and natural gas. The practice is used in only about 2% of the state’s oil production, but it’s controvers­ial because of the potential to increase air pollution, contaminat­e drinking water supplies and trigger sinkholes near the well sites.

Newsom’s fracking pledge raised hope that this was the beginning of a larger move to reduce fossil fuel extraction, but also skepticism that the governor would actually follow through. Advocates have pushed Newsom to be far more aggressive in curtailing oil production; if the governor was so intent on phasing out fracking, why not pursue the ban himself through executive action? Instead, he punted the matter to the Legislatur­e, where Democrats are notoriousl­y split on oil and gas policy.

Some environmen­talists predicted Newsom’s pledge would prove to be an empty promise. They were right.

The main Senate proposal to phase out fracking was Senate Bill 467 by Democratic state Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Monique Limón of Santa Barbara, a bill that would have banned new fracking permits starting next year. It came to an unceremoni­ous end Tuesday at the Senate Natural Resources Committee, where it failed to get the five votes needed to stay alive.

Part of the challenge was that SB 467 went further and faster to rein in drilling than Newsom probably intended. Neverthele­ss, it appears Newsom did nothing to help the bill survive or evolve into something more politicall­y feasible.

The bill would have banned new permits not just for fracking, but for any “enhanced oil recovery” methods that inject water, steam and additional substances into the ground to get oil out, starting Jan. 1, 2022. It would have banned such extraction methods entirely by 2027. That would have affected 80% to 95% of oil production in California, effectivel­y shutting down most of the industry. The bill was recently amended to delay the full phase-out of injection methods until 2035, but that wasn’t enough to get more lawmakers on board.

The bill also would have prohibited oil and gas wells from operating within 2,500 feet of a home, school or healthcare facility, starting next year. A similar proposal was rejected last year. Even so, a growing number of cities and states have enacted buffer zones to reduce health and safety risks from oil drilling. The Newsom administra­tion is studying whether to mandate a minimum buffer zone statewide, but that proposed regulation has been delayed and delayed.

Perhaps the authors of SB 467 were too ambitious, despite the clear need to reduce the production and consumptio­n of fossil fuels to better protect communitie­s living near oil and gas industry operations and to help slow climate change. The state is the nation’s seventh-largest producer of oil, with more than 180 oil and gas fields. It’s unrealisti­c to think California could essentiall­y shut down production in a few years without significan­t impact to communitie­s that rely on the oil and gas industry for tax revenue and good-paying union jobs.

California needs a comprehens­ive plan to phase out petroleum production, not just fracking. That means bringing leaders from labor, industry and the environmen­tal community together to chart a path forward so that the people and communitie­s that have lived with or relied on oil and gas production aren’t left behind. Discussion­s have already begun through the governor’s Just Transition road map, but there’s much work and negotiatio­n ahead. California doesn’t have time for empty promises.

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