Message To Governor Jerry Brown: State Fracking Is Cracking

Since assuming office in 2011, Governor Jerry Brown has protected oil drilling and fracking, despite his commitment to battle climate change. But it will be hard for him to ignore a ban on fracking in Monterey County just passed by voters who backed Measure Z.

Though Chevron, Aera, and industry supporters spent $5.5 million to defeat the measure, an alliance of businesses, labor, students, Latinos, homeowners, and environmental advocates won the day. Public opinion is tilting away from Brown. According to a Gallup poll taken in March, 51 percent of Americans oppose the controversial method of injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and obscene amounts of water into rock formations to unlock oil and gas—that’s an 11-point uptick compared to a year ago. A 2014 poll showed that two thirds of Californians supported legislation banning fracking until it was proven safe.

Monterey is the first major oil producing county in California to ban fracking, though it’s the sixth county to ban it overall. Alameda, Butte, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Mendocino have also banned it. Most other states that have banned fracking have little to no drilling activity, like New York State.

Brown has personally intervened to convince cities not to prevent new drilling. In May 2014, Brown called Carson Mayor Jim Dear to discuss the city’s temporary moratorium on new oil production. Occidental’s proposal to drill 200 wells in the city was on the line. After the call, the city council decided not to extend the moratorium and greenlighted the drilling, infuriating residents who feared, despite Occidental's promises, that it would frack for oil. Still, Occidental, a big Jerry Brown contributor, ended up pulling the plug. 

In much the same way, when Monterey County supervisors rejected a unanimous recommendation by the planning commission to enact a moratorium on fracking and wastewater injection, it made locals so mad that Measure Z was born.

Jerry Brown’s championing of fracking is likely to touch off more such grassroots movements in California’s oil producing counties. That’s because he has allowed fracking to go forward without first making sure that it wouldn't harm public health. 

When originally introduced, that is what fracking bill SB 4 would have done. But under heavy lobbying, the bill passed in 2013 without the temporary moratorium, and with exemptions for common well stimulation methods and optional environmental reviews for wells. The legislation did mandate that the risks to public health be studied, but did not direct what to do with those results.

In 2015, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and Berkeley Lab found that fracking carries great risks to health and the environment. Their report said that many of the 300 plus chemicals used in fracking do not have “the basic suite of physical, chemical, and biological analysis required” to fully understand their effects. In California, three quarters of all fracking takes place in shallow wells where fractures could contaminate nearby drinking water aquifers. Indeed, in 2015 the Associated Press revealed that state regulators allowed production fluids and oil waste to be injected into federally-protected, potable aquifers more than 2,500 times.

Brown has not directed his regulators to heed the results of the scientific report. He could easily use his executive powers to direct regulators to follow the report’s recommendations including: an end to shallow fracking, and to the disposal of oil waste water in unlined pits, banning any chemical with unknown environmental properties, and limiting hazardous chemicals. 

Since the state of California hasn’t enacted these recommendations, Monterey County took measures to protect its aquifers and public health. Measure Z leaves roughly 1,200 existing oil wells, but bans fracking and cyclic steam injection. It also phases out underground wastewater injections over five years and bans new oil wells. Perhaps now, Sacramento will get the message that if steps aren’t taken to protect people, people will continue to take steps to protect themselves.

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