California focus: Cities move to stop fracking

By Thomas D. Elias

When a city like Carson, home to one large oil refinery and next-door neighbor to another, and site of both a Cal State campus and a Major League Soccer stadium, slaps a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing because of environmental questions, you know fracking of California’s vast oil and gas reserves is no sure thing.

Carson is essentially saying “enough.” It’s one thing to be oil-rich, as Carson is, and another to have unsafe drinking water, which many in the city feel they’d get if Occidental Petroleum goes ahead with a large fracking project in an oil field long considered mostly depleted.

Carson is not alone. Los Angeles, another city with a long and storied history of oil drilling, is also drafting an anti-fracking ordinance. So are others.

This activity comes because environmentalists don’t believe Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature went nearly far enough last year, when they okayed the nation’s toughest set of fracking regulations.

The stakes in all this are enormous. The Monterey Shale geologic formation, extending almost 200 miles from near San Juan Bautista to Bakersfield and Ventura, is said by some to contain as much as two-thirds of America’s petroleum reserves.

Which should make it a major priority to find a fracking method of unquestionable safety.

Oil, of course, has been drilled in the Central Valley part of the Monterey Shale for more than a century. The Elk Hills federal petroleum reserve near Taft is part of this history. The oil drawn from those fields helped propel companies like Union Oil, Occidental and Chevron to international significance, but could be dwarfed by what lurks in underground shale.

Yet, the Central Valley’s long history of soil subsidence, and the chemical pollution of once-fertile farmland, provides a cautionary note, even if a USC study last year concluded all-out fracking of the Monterey Shale could produce hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Environmentalists like to counter with a 2012 study of several Pennsylvania counties where fracking is common and has created few jobs. They also note a spate of small Ohio earthquakes now linked by many to fracking.

But North Dakota once had high unemployment and now has a fracking boom with the lowest unemployment rate in America.

Until former Treasury Dept. official Neel Kashkari, and current Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, emerged as the two apparent Republican frontrunners to oppose Brown, it appeared he might be hurt by his 2013 fracking compromise. But now anti-frackers have nowhere else to turn other than Brown. Donnelly evinces no interest in environmental issues, while Kashkari advocates fracking the state to the hilt which, he says, could produce up to 2.8 million new jobs and $24.6 billion in new state and local tax revenues.

The best thing about the new state fracking regulations may be that no one likes them. Environmentalists gripe the rules didn’t stop the practice, while pro-fracking oil industry spokesman Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Assn. simply says, “We don’t like them.”

But while Hull concedes, “We can live with” the new rules, environmentalists don’t make that concession. They worry that water pollution could occur even though oil companies must now apply for permits before they start fracking, which they’ve never done before.