If you’ve paid any attention to the 2020 presidential election cycle, then you’ve heard the term “fracking” thrown around by candidates. It was mentioned several times during the first presidential debate with President Donald Trump accusing Democractic nominee former vice president Joe Biden that he would ban fracking.
But what is fracking and why do people want to see it end? The short answer: It’s a controversial oil extraction method that experts say is harming people's health, and stopping the practice would be part of starting to end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
However, it’s more complicated than that.
In California, environmental advocates would like to see fracking end. Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recent executive order asked the state to explore ways to end new hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024. The order notes that in-state oil extraction has declined by 60% since 1985, but that demand hasn’t slowed down.
“We simply don't have that authority,” Newsom said in September. “That's why we need the Legislature to approve it.”
California has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Part of that is phasing out the sale of new gas powered cars and trucks by 2035. That’s going to take less dependence on fossil fuels.
That will mean making sure both supply and demand for oil and natural gas dwindle, says David Shabazian, director of the Department of Conservation.
“We have an industry in decline, we want to make sure that as it's declining, we manage that decline so that we have operators continuing to operate responsibly,” he said. “This idea of a just transition means that we don't just basically gut this industry and leave behind these communities that are dependent on this industry.”
What Is Fracking?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a practice where a high pressure cocktail of water, chemicals and sand are shot into the ground to establish an oil well to help remove oil and natural gas from the earth. It breaks up layers of rock and the oil and natural gas escapes through the cracks.
It’s an oil extraction practice that has the potential to contaminate drinking water and pollute air, according to environmental advocates like Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. That’s why she and many other groups are asking Newsom to ban the practice.
“Common sense would suggest that you wouldn't want a big industrial operation literally in your backyard,” she said. “You would not want people to be exposed to that. But in parts of Los Angeles and parts of the San Joaquin Valley, that is what is going on.”
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club also want rules in place that would require a 2,500-foot buffer zone between homes and schools. The state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, CalGEM, is working on draft rules for buffer zones. Lawmakers rejected legislation earlier this year that would have mandated buffer zones.
In the meantime Phillips says Newsom should do something about the zones and ending fracking.
“We think that he has the authority to do so especially given the public health impacts, the water impacts,” Phillips said. “There's plenty of evidence that fracking creates problems in California.”
Out of the state’s more than 48,000 active onshore production wells, only 638 are used for hydraulic fracturing, according to Shabazian. He says well stimulation, which is one method of fracking, accounts for a tiny fraction of all of California's oil and gas production. The rest comes from traditional oil drilling and steam injections.
“Fracking is a small part of oil production in California, it's about 1.5%, maybe 2%,” he said. “It does get a lot of attention, but it's not the biggest form of oil production in California. I think that that's maybe not well known.”
Shabazian says because of the pandemic, the amount of permits requested this year has dropped dramatically. He says usually there are about 60 permit requests per quarter, but this year “we don't even have the equivalent of one full quarters worth of fracking permits. Of those that have been issued operators have only drilled five wells.”
Don Drysdale, a public affairs officer for the conservation department, says there are 39 active fracking permits in the state, which last for a year. He added that the practice is a “one-time operation lasting less than a day.”
But the Independent Petroleum Association of America says it takes between three and five days to establish a well.
A 2015 report by the California Council on Science and Technology found that from 2005 to 2015 around 20% of all California oil and gas production was found using fracking.
The oil industry, represented by groups like the California Independent Petroleum Association, say moving away from fracking will drive up energy costs for consumers.
“At a time when Californians pay more for energy while experiencing manmade ‘green outs,’ it doesn't make sense to hurt consumers, our economy, and our environment by banning California production,” said CIPA Chief Executive Officer Rock Zierman in an email. “We urge the Governor to ignore the rhetoric, stand up for science, and know that we are willing partners in California's climate future. The focus should be on reducing overall emissions, not picking winners and losers.”
The group says the oil industry is poised to invest in technology to take carbon out of the air, which could “result in negative emissions.”
Who Has The Authority To End Fracking?
Despite just about 2% of the state’s oil and gas coming from fracking, environmental advocates across the state want the practice ended.
Young environmental advocates like 19-year-old Nalleli Cobo say Gov. Newsom has the authority to stop it on his own and shouldn’t wait until 2024 to ban new permits.
“I think any oil well extraction is just as dangerous as fracking,” she said. “It all boils down to the same thing. It's poisoning us, poisoning the health of our elders, and the youth of the next generation.”
After suffering from nosebleeds as a child she helped shutdown an oil well site in her Los Angeles neighborhood. She now wants Los Angeles and the state to phase out all well drilling — fracking or any type of oil extraction — near sensitive areas like schools or homes.
“If we have the power, we should have done that yesterday,” she said. “Clean air is just such a basic human right and it's not okay that in 2020, when we claim to be such a progressive nation, we're still denying that to people.”
But who has the power to stop fracking? Deborah A. Sivas, an attorney with the Stanford University Environmental Law Clinic, says Newsom has the legal authority to stop the practice immediately, but that he doesn’t want to.
“Not to say the industry wouldn't sue and it wouldn't get wrapped up in court,” she said. “But it would be a move in the right direction, as opposed to we're going to study it, and maybe we'll get some legislation.”
She says as California takes a stand on climate change, the governor needs to take decisive action on ending fracking as a signal of a transition to green energy.
“Sometimes you just need bold, bold moves, especially given our climate situation,” she said.
But Newsom has punted the decision to the legislature, and at least three members are working on legislation around a fracking ban. Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D–Hollister), Monique Limón (D–Santa Barbara) and Senator Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) announced in September they would introduce a ban on fracking later this year. The bill would build on the governor's executive order.
“Fracking is one of the most toxic and environmentally damaging forms of fossil fuel extraction,” Assemblymember Rivas said. “As a county supervisor, I helped pass one of the first local bans on fracking in the country, and I believe a statewide ban is long overdue.”
For the trio of legislators, the potential ban is about ending reliance on fossil fuels in a global effort to curb climate change.
“California being one of the largest oil producers is inconsistent with being a climate leader,” Sen. Wiener said. “Let’s start with banning fracking, which is environmentally destructive, carbon-intensive, and inconsistent with respect for the land.”
Legal experts and advocates see a major problem with relying on the legislature for banning fracking. Bills often die, face major setbacks or get watered down in the legislative process, which has happened in the past with bills targeting the oil industry, says Kassie Siegel, director of the climate law institute at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The oil industry wields power in the California legislature,” Siegel said. “It’s really, really hard to pass strong new bills, it is way easier to defend existing law from attacks by polluters.”
Siegel said one example is Senate Bill 4, a law promising Californias that fracking moving forward would be based on science. The bill passed in 2013 and the first scientific review came out in 2015. She says the results showed that the shallow fracking happening in the state is very hazardous and is proof that it should have been immediately stopped.
But since it wasn't, she says, “it's a broken promise to Californians, because all these recommendations from scientists have so far been ignored.”
Siegel said she thinks Newsom should treat the ending of fracking in the same way he has used executive orders to deal with emergencies like wildfires or coronavirus.
The idea that he doesn't have the power to protect people from fracking and drilling is really quite absurd,” she said. “That's why more than 750 organizations are calling on him to protect Californians.”
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