Los Angeles Anti-Fracking Champion pt. 3

by Arlo Bender-Simon

While Kern County is home to over 75% of California’s fossil fuel production and the Bay area is California’s hub for social justice activism, Los Angeles County is home to millions of people living right next to oil and gas operations.

Part 3: Recent Elections & Moving Forward

Across the country, fracking and other Well Stimulation Techniques (WST being the legal term for these extreme, secondary recovery methods) are being hailed as an “energy revolution” that will wean America off of dependence on foreign oil. Across the country, fracking is also being discredited and exposed as a major risk that we do not need to be taking.

Not only does investing in a frack-filled future commit us to decades more of a society powered mostly by fossil fuels, it condemns those who reside near extraction, processing and refining operations to remain on edge about the safety of their homes, the health of their loved ones. You may have seen videos of people light their water on fire, but you cannot visually confirm that someone contracted cancer from exposure to benzene, and far too often we are not told when some sort of leak occurs and puts a community at risk.

We should quickly reduce our exploitation of fossil fuel reserves, and need to stop our exploration for more fossil fuel now. Instead, we need to begin seriously transitioning to an infrastructure heavily invested in renewable energy, and a society invested not in extraction, but regeneration.

Top Down = Regulatory Approval

Something that is becoming increasingly clear is that leadership in opposition to fracking will not come from up top. The federal government has exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and laws governing hazardous waste for a decade and the federal Environmental Protection Agency seems to just be getting around to looking into the risks involved.

New York has become a beacon of hope, an example of how waves of opposition from the ground up, from active, engaged people throughout the state can still put an industry in check. Hundreds of communities throughout the state had banned fracking before the New York Health Department released a study in December 2014 reviewing the practice and the threats it posed to public health. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the right decision, not by being bold and leading, but by listening to those who were. Oil and Gas extraction will continue in New York for some time to come, but Hydraulic Fracturing is now illegal.

In California, cries for a ban on fracking and the legislative response produced Senate Bill 4 in 2013. SB4 has been hailed by some as enacting the toughest regulations in the country, and will go into full effect this year. The bill is more data collection than protective regulation though and is being enacted as quickly as possible so as to be no inconvenience to the fossil fuel industry.

Per SB4, the California Natural Resources Agency commissioned an independent scientific assessment on the impacts of Well Stimulation Treatments in California[1]. Part 1 has been released, but Parts II & III, which examine environmental and public health impacts, will not be released until July of this year.

SB4 also requires new regulations on WST, which have been under review for some time. They include a lot of good things, like mandatory water testing before and after a stimulation treatment is used and increased communication between operators and DOGGR (the state agency which oversees oil and gas drilling activity).

But these new regulations essentially legitimate the process while providing little protection to the 5.4 million Californians who live within one mile of an oil or gas well. The proposed regulations will likely be approved by July of this year, the same time at which the studies looking into impacts on the environment and public health are going to be released. This is unacceptable; the state mandated study should be taken into account before new regulations are implemented.

Which is why the people of California are going to their local governments. The state sets overall standards and rules for the oil and gas industry, but local county and municipal governments oversee land use law and approve many permits, including Environmental Impact Reports, needed for fossil fuel projects.

County Wide Fracking Bans

In late May 2014, Santa Cruz stepped into a leadership role. While no fossil fuel production is occurring there, a unanimous Board of Supervisors vote made Santa Cruz the first county in the state to ban well stimulation treatments from future use. Just a week later, the state government continued to show its lack of leadership by allowing Senate Biill 1132, Holly Mitchell’s proposed temporary ban, to die. (Mitchell is a state senator representing Los Angeles) The bill would have placed a temporary ban on frackng until SB 4 could go into full effect.

This past November, eight localities throughout the country had fracking bans on the ballot for their general election. Three of them were counties in California. Mendocino, San Benito and Santa Barbara stepped forward to prevent the coming boom in well stimulation treatments. Of the three, Santa Barbara has the most active fossil fuel extraction while Mendocino has zero fossil extraction. San Benito has endured much industry activity in the past but currently hosts only a few dozen wells.

Californian’s For Energy Independence arose as the main opponent to these attempted bans on fracking. By election day, this group had spent over seven million dollars to oppose the fracking bans up for a vote in these three California counties. This money overwhelmingly came from the Western State Petroleum Association and the big oil companies that seek to frack in our state. Millions of corporate dollars versus the concerns of the people…..

In Ohio, the town of Athens voted to ban fracking. Much like San Benito, the town had little active oil and gas activity, but the industry was gearing up to begin drilling. Much like Mendocino, Athens’ was voting on more than a ban on fracking; they were voting on a Community Bill Of Rights & Water Supply Protection Ordinance. It included this call to action:

“The people of the city of Athens call for binding changes to the constitution of the state of Ohio that recognize and enforce the right to local community self-government that shall not be preempted when the municipality enacts laws that protect the health, safety and welfare of the community or when the municipality asserts and expands the rights of human and natural communities.[2]”

Of the three California counties, only Santa Barbara failed to pass its fracking ban. However this only tells us that millions of dollars influence elections, as the gross majority of the money spent by Californian’s For Energy Independence went to Santa Barbara county. Meanwhile, a day after the election, action was finally taken on Los Angeles’ own fracking ban.

LA Takes A Step Backwards

After eight months of patience, the city of Los Angeles was handed a wake up call. On November 5th, the LA Department of City Planning released a report detailing the state of petroleum regulations currently in place and arguing against imposing a temporary ban on well stimulation treatments[3]. Despite being directed by the City Council to draft a moratorium, the department recommended pursuing new land use regulations and hiring a technical expert to oversee such efforts.

This is a glaring example of how involved we must become if we wish to see fracking banned in our state. Los Angeles sent a glimmer of hope to the anti-fracking movement back in February by becoming the largest city in the country to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and shout, “stop!” The city brought reality back eight months later by showing us that even at the municipal level, our government is so afraid of the fossil fuel industry that it is unwilling to protect communities first, approve oil projects later.

We must change that.

Do Recent Elections Tell Us Anything?

We must also know that the struggle before us may be a long one. New York had a moratorium in place for five years before Governor Cuomo bowed to political momentum by banning fracking.

And so we must keep up the pressure at the local level, and so we have.

On March 3, La Habra Heights & Hermosa Beach had important votes before them. In La Habra, voters would decide whether or not to ban well stimulation techniques in city limits; in Hermosa, voters would decide whether or not to allow an oil company to be exempted from an existing ban on oil and gas drilling activity.

The people of Hermosa Beach resoundingly rejected the proposal to allow E&B Natural Resources to drill for oil in their city, some of those would have gone out under the Santa Monica bay. As in Santa Barbara, the people of La Habra Heights rejected a ban on well stimulation. As in Santa Barbara, La Habra Heights is home to an active and well-established fossil fuel industry.

This is an important distinction. Where the oil and gas industry is more established, has a long history and many active projects, it makes sense that doing anything to hurt the economic future of fossil fuel extraction is not going to move forward without a fight. California is the third largest state in terms of fossil fuel production, New York is not in the top three. We have our work cut out for us.

Moving Forward

In this context, Los Angeles is a battleground. There are many oil fields in city limits that have been active since the nineteenth century. Many oil companies have their offices in the city, including California Resources Corporation, the recent spinoff from Occidental Petroleum that deals only in California crude. The Los Angeles basin is the second most productive region in California’s fossil fuel industry (far behind Kern county), and ground zero in the struggle to ban fracking.

If Los Angeles were to follow through on its fracking moratorium it would be a leader in California and could send a burst of momentum to efforts throughout the country. But the city will only follow through if residents demand it, and the same goes for the entire state. SB4-like regulation will be the best we ever get unless we demand that our state government enact a ban on fracking.

The fossil fuel industry is well organized in our state, and it will not sit idly by as the future of fracking is at stake. It has shown this in the recent elections by sending massive amounts of money to influence and confuse voters. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the symbol of that organization and the largest oil lobby on the West Coast. In January, it was reported that WSPA was threatening to sue Los Angeles if it moved forward with its temporary ban on well stimulation[4].

 

This piece was written in three parts with the intention of bringing the reader through a quick overview of anti-fracking efforts in California, with an eye on Los Angeles’ place within that. With this knowledge, I hope that you will engage the movement in whatever way you can. Our state will only be what we want it to be when we get involved!

California has a long history of fossil fuel extraction, and the fossil fuel industry has had a long time to cozy up with the regulatory agencies and local governments tasked with overseeing them. If we are going to overcome the influence that oil and gas companies, and the lobbies that represent them, have bought in our state government, we need to get active and work together to demand a different future.

Los Angeles is already on the frontlines of fracking in California, it is time for Los Angeles to be on the frontline of the anti-fracking movement.

CSSC is having its Spring Convergence at Loyola Marymont University from April 24-26, join us! Students Against Fracking will be present and we would love to talk with you. And please, resist extraction, insist on cooperation.

References

[1] California Council On Science & Technology, Well Stimulation In California, http://ccst.us/projects/hydraulic_fracturing_public/SB4.php, accessed 4/5/15.

[2] Athens Ohio Community Bill Of Rights & Water Supply Protection Ordinance, http://democracyovercorporations.org/Athens%20Community%20Bill%20Of%20Rights%20and%20Water%20Supply%20Protection%20Ordinance.pdf, accessed April 5, 2015.

[3] Alan Bell, Re: Regulatory Controls Over Well Stimulation, LA Department Of City Planning, November 5, 2014, http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2013/13-1152-s1_rpt_plan_11-6-14.pdf. (accessed 11/15/14)

[4] Molly Peterson, Oil Lobby Threatens Lawsuit, But Councilmember Vow To Press Forward On LA Fracking Moratorium, KPCC, Janurary 20, 2015, http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/01/20/49372/oil-lobby-threatens-lawsuit-but-councilmembers-vow/, accessed April 5, 2015.

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