California’s New Fracking Law: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a major bill that promises to regulate fracking in California for the first time. But don’t get too excited. Sen. Fran Pavley’s fracking bill, known as S.B. 4, is part big win, part big loss, with an incredible amount of mess thrown in.

The good

The new law requires:

  • Regulation, for the first time in California history, of fracking and acidization -- the use of acid to stimulate oil and gas production. 
  • Public disclosure of all chemicals and sources/volumes of water used in a drilling operation.
  • Limits on industry secrecy claims based on confidential business information.   
  • Notification of property owners and tenants that drilling will soon start on nearby land. (Last year, oil company lobbyists killed an EWG-sponsored, Pavley-authored bill to require these notifications.)   
  • Water quality monitoring before and after drilling, with a mandatory plan for wastewater disposal.  

These aspects of SB 4 could make California’s fracking regulations the strongest in the country, if not for …

The bad (and ugly)

The bill's lead legislative sponsors  made some last-minute compromises that significantly favored the industry over public health and the environment and caused EWG and other environmental groups to withdraw their support just before the final votes.  These compromises included:

  • An amendment that could allow drillers to escape stringent environmental impact review during the interim before regulations to carry out the new law have been put in place.
  • Weakened language governing environmental impact reviews of drilling operations even after the state establishes its fracking regulations.  Last year, EWG joined forces with Earthjustice and several other environmental organizations to sue the state for failing to conduct any such environmental reviews on fracking operations. That lawsuit is pending.

The new law’s language regarding environmental review was poorly crafted, leading to confusion and debate over its meaning.   Even as he was signing the Pavley bill, Brown urged lawmakers to enact some clarifying amendments during the next legislative session.

(Talk about ugly: the California legislature voted for, and the governor signed, a bill that everyone conceded needed fixing.)

So are Californians better off now that S.B. 4 is law?  

Hard to say. We will certainly have much more governmental control over fracking and other dangerous drilling methods than ever before.  That is critical and a dramatic change from the time when the state was turning a blind eye to fracking. EWG exposed this problem in an investigative report called California Regulators:  See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking, published in February of last year.

But the lawmakers' last-minute compromises raise so many other questions that it may be months or years before we know where we truly stand. In the meantime, EWG is calling for a moratorium on fracking on the state’s public lands, and many organizations want a moratorium on fracking in California, period.

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