Political Animal


February 05, 2013 11:59 AM California’s Coming War Over Fracking

By Ed Kilgore

The passage of a ballot initiative raising taxes to deal with a chronic budget crisis, and the achievement of super-majorities in both state legislative chambers by Democrats, have for the moment relieved California’s perpetual political gridlock, in a way (total victory for one side!) that may represent the only hope for ending national political gridlock as well. But residents of the Golden State better enjoy the relative peace. Because there is every indication that California politics could soon be plunged into an all-consuming fight over rules governing the exploitation of petroleum reserves by fracking technology. Here are the basics from the New York Times’ Norimitsu Onishi:

Comprising two-thirds of the United States’s total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas….
Established companies are expanding into the Monterey Shale, while newcomers are opening offices in Bakersfield, the capital of California’s oil industry, about 40 miles east of here. With oil prices remaining high, landmen are buying up leases on federal land, sometimes bidding more than a thousand dollars an acre in auctions that used to fetch the minimum of $2….
The Monterey Shale has also galvanized California’s powerful environmental groups. They are pressing the state to strictly regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique that has fueled the shale oil and gas boom elsewhere but has drawn opposition from many environmentalists. In December, the State Department of Conservation released a draft of fracking rules, the first step in a yearlong process to establish regulations.

As in other parts of the country, disputes over fracking are multi-dimensional. Some environmentalists have focused on the immediate dangers associated with the practice, such as air pollution, land poisoning, and public health risks—and in California, the unavoidable question of seismic consequences. As Grist’s Susie Cagle notes, the area where the bulk of the fracking activity would take place doesn’t exactly sport a healthy environment to begin with:

California’s Central Valley already has enough pollution to contend with from toxic farming chemicals that have leaked into groundwater. The Fresno metro area has the worst air quality in the country, topping Forbes’ list of the dirtiest U.S. cities in 2012.

But the Central Valley also has the state’s most difficult and sustained economic problems, with unemployment well above national and state averages and pockets of poverty worse than any in the Deep South.

California’s traditional east-west split in politics (both cutting across and reinforcing partisan divisions), culture and economics will be vastly intensified by a big state regulatory fight over tracking. And that’s aside from the much larger debate, which is likely to break into national politics with a vengeance very soon, as to whether new technologies for exploitation of petroleum reserves represent the promise of a new Golden Age of prosperity and energy independence, or a horrific inducement to increased dependence on fossil fuels at a time when action to head off climate change has become urgent.

Those who quite rightly complained that environmental issues were submerged during the 2012 election cycle are about to get their wish for a nationally prominent debate. But because at the moment regulation of fracking is mostly a state issue, it will break out most intensely in states where opinion is sharply divided over the practice. It’s hard to imagine a sharper division than we are already beginning to see in California, where new draft regulations sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown are already drawing fire from both sides.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 05, 2013 12:17 PM:

    Ready, every one sing with me:

    O no-longer beautiful for once spacious skies,
    For genegically modified and patented amber waves of grain,
    For leveled former purple mountain majesties
    Above the fracked once fruited plain!
    America! America!
    God shed his tears for thee
    And crown thy corporations with profits and personthood
    From oil-slicked sea to oil-slicked shining sea!

  • lou on February 05, 2013 12:29 PM:

    If the choice were actually about a bridge fuel to get us across the unsustainable/sustainable divide or a U turn fuel that just keeps the wheels on this unsustainable beast until we reach the end of this fatal path, it might be a choice worth debating. In all likelihood, we will keep on keepin' on with pursuing the latter with the attendant opportunity cost of failing to get us across the divide. We are in the inescapable clutches of technocracy, the land of ultimate catch 22s.

  • jjm on February 05, 2013 12:48 PM:

    California has always been in the forefront of energy saving, energy innovation, and most of all, careful attention to excessive energy use. Remember when Gray Davis brought down Enron, which was trying to gouge California shamelessly, by getting usage lowered by 5% simply by appealing to the people. (That netted poor Davis a recall election, with Schwarzenegger running, but never mentioning it, on deregulating energy. He never succeeded.)

    Jerry Brown set the pro-environmental course in his first run as governor, so I have some faith that the issue will be carefully thought through.

  • gab on February 05, 2013 1:07 PM:

    It will be interesting to see if the Calif legislative bodies implement some sort of oil and gas extraction tax that will at least enable the state to benefit from the fracking.

  • Ashbee on February 05, 2013 1:10 PM:

    I'm an oil guy. Let's first clear a few things up.

    California is by far the most heavily regulated state in terms of hydrocarbon exploration and production. That said there is still LOADS of active oil patches in the state(Bakersfield anyone?).

    FRACKING is a straight up losing issue for environmentalist and they don't even know it for several reasons. For starters the technology nowadays is much greener than it was even a couple years ago. Propane gel and electro-pulse fracking totally negate the need for water in the process and are harmless to the groundwater. That's exactly where the industry is going and I politicians will simply write it into the regs that only green methods can be used.

    The bigger danger which nobody talks about is illegal dumping on the part of truck drivers who haul away treated water and the likes. This is where the real danger lies.

  • jjm on February 05, 2013 1:32 PM:

    To @Ashbee: didn't mention earthquakes, did you?

  • bigtuna on February 05, 2013 1:51 PM:

    Ashbee will probably reply, but jjm:

    Fracking itself does NOT cause earthquakes that pose any problem to humans, or the ecosystem. Fracking creates teeny earthquakes when it makes the - fracs. If it made a big earthquake, it would be a failed frac job. As Ashbee also alludes to - in addtion, MOST frac fluids are injected so deep and are of a composition that they cannot migrate upwards to interact with ground waters. Thus, "contamination at depth" and earthquakes are red herrings.

    Where the issues lie, and where the regulatory burden should be focused, is on the surface regions. Frac jobs ARE big impact processes - for a few days. There are HUGE 6000 horsepower engines, pumps, tanks, fluids, etc., at the drill pad, and it is the surface operations, and the nature of the wellbores in the aquifers, cement around pipes, etc., that is of concern. And the trucks, pipes, etc., that haul waste waters, formation waters, away from the drill pad and well head.

    The earthquakes, when they occur, are due to deep injection of waste waters from oil production, as well as chemical plants, etc. These wells inject waters to 3-5 km, and can occasionally create an earthquake; probably not above mag 5.

    There ARE concerns. It would be good if people focused on the things that matter, vs the stuff that doesn't happen.

  • kindness on February 05, 2013 2:46 PM:

    No mention of water? Water is what wars are fought over here. Fracking requires lots of water of which California does not have lots. No only that, the 'red' part of the state, the valley is the farming area. They guard their water like no ones business.

    Follow the money or in this case the water.

  • JR on February 05, 2013 4:34 PM:

    cundgulag: You may want to check the Sons of Emperor Norton, a Northern California band, especially their Irrational Anthem (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tsoen)

    bigtuna: Maybe you're not aware, but California is riddled with seismic faults... I believe jjm's concern is about how fracking, which has already caused earthquakes of a sort, could create far more consequential ones in the Golden State - the kind that could render all this fracking futile if the infrastructure, not to mention the land itself, no longer exists.

  • bigtuna on February 05, 2013 6:35 PM:

    I am quite well aware of how many faults are in California. I am also aware of the physics of fracing. The issue of creating slip on a fault that would have any consequence is so much less than the very real concerns of water, water quality, surface impacts, etc. that any discussion of "causing an earthquake" by a frac job is nonsense.

  • rover27 on February 05, 2013 6:43 PM:

    How about the impact of fracking on the landscape? Even if there were no effects on the air or water, fracking totally destroys the landscape of the areas where it occurs...the wells, the many gravel roads to the wells, the huge oil storage tanks, the unbelievable increase in truck traffic, etc.

    I live in the Bakken patch in North Dakota. It's turned into an industrialized disaster area.

  • Darrelb on February 07, 2013 1:42 PM:

    If you propertied, middle-aged, white coastal liberals think you are going to keep us in the Central Valley living in lean-to's around Fresno and Merced, you have another thing coming. If you think you are going to live in your little coastal enclaves and keep the rest of us in poverty with your environmental extremism, you have another thing coming. We fully intend to develop our resources with the high paying jobs that come along with that development. We have great wealth in our natural resouces in the valley and mountains of the east and we are going to exploit them. You've had your boot on our throats for far to long. This is worth fighting for.

  • Mitch on February 07, 2013 2:54 PM:


    I'm neither middle-aged nor propertied, but I suppose that I count as a "white coastal liberal" ... in my case the Sonoma coast.

    But I am originally from Kentucky, a small coal-mining town, and that's a big part of why I, for one, cannot support the fracking. In my home town you hear talk about supporting coal so that it supports the local economy. But it doesn't, not really. The mines don't invest in the community, or pay their workers decent wages. My home town has a median income of around $12K a year and the miners (who supposedly have "high paying jobs") often can't afford to move out of the trailer park.

    Then there is the environmental degradation. Oh, you may call my opinion extremism, but you're from California. You don't live in a place where a busted silt pond will expose hundreds of families to heavy metals and toxins at random. Where the air is choked and the roads destroyed by the trucks. Where the mountains, once lush and green, are now barren wastelands surrounding your community, and the creeks are poisoned and clogged by the leftovers of casual environmental destruction.

    See, you think that it will bring you a lot of jobs and big money ... but it won't. Energy corporations don't work that way; they keep the money for their executives and to hell with their employees and the communities in which such folk live. And if it does actually help your community economically, it will be BECAUSE of our liberal "boots" which ensure better treatment of workers here in this state than in places like my old Kentucky home.

    So I wish the best for you, I genuinely do. We may disagree, but we're both Americans and humans, and I hope that nothing but good follows you for your entire life. If fracking does come to your area, I hope that it generates a windfall of money and rejuvenates the lifeblood of your area. But in my experience—as the son, grandson and great-grandson of coal miners—I caution you to be wary of the promises of milk, honey, flowers and dancing that energy companies make.