California's fracking future takes center stage

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Angela Godwin, Chief Editor

Amidst ongoing efforts to develop California's Monterey Shale, Governor Jerry Brown has been drawing tough criticism from activist groups and former staff members concerned about safeguarding the state's water and environmental resources.

The Monterey Shale is a 1,750 square mile formation that stretches from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Los Angeles. Some geologists believe it holds 15.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- that's more than half the amount of recoverable shale oil estimated to reside in the United States' lower 48. Naturally, that has attracted some attention.

In September, Governor Brown signed SB 4 into law, California's first fracking bill -- and one that's been described as one of the most stringent in the country to date. Among the requirements set forth in the legislation, oil and gas companies planning to use unconventional drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing and acidization, must apply for a permit, publicly disclose the chemicals they use, notify neighbors before commencing operations, and monitor groundwater and air quality.

The California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) was charged with developing the regulations to accomplish the goals of SB 4 by January 2015. DOGGR released its draft rules for public comment in late November.

Third-term Governor Brown has been a consistent supporter of environmental issues and has generally enjoyed favorable support from the environmental community. Until now, it seems.

Upon signing SB 4 in September, Gov. Brown characterized the bill as establishing "strong environmental protections and transparency requirements for hydraulic fracturing and other well stimulation operations."

However, rather than being regarded as a framework upon which to build a sensible, safe approach to developing the Monterey Shale, SB 4 is being criticized as far too lenient. What environmentalist groups really wanted -- and are still pushing for -- is a ban on fracking activities in the state, at least until an Environmental Impact Statement can be completed in 2015 as outlined in the bill.

A few weeks after SB 4 was signed, twenty prominent climate scientists sent Gov. Brown a letter outlining the negative impacts of allowing unconventional shale development to continue: increased carbon emissions, intense water requirements, threats to public health. The authors urged a moratorium be placed on shale oil and gas development.

Likewise, twenty-seven former staff members sent Gov. Brown a similar letter. "We need an immediate moratorium on fracking until independent scientific studies ... demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that fracking for shale oil in California can be done without accelerating climate change, poisoning our water, polluting our air, threatening the industries that make our state unique, or otherwise endangering Californians."

Gov. Brown told Bloomberg in late October: "I think we ought to give science a chance before deciding on a ban on fracking... This is a very complicated equation. You can be sure that California is doing everything it can to reduce greenhouse gases and support a sustainable economy."

One can't really fault him for wanting to keep his options open. While estimates vary, the U.S. Energy Information Agency said that development of the Monterey Shale could boost the state's economic activity by as much as 14.3%; oil-related tax revenue in the state could be as much as $4.5 billion by 2015; and as many as 500,000 new jobs could be created. In a state that has weathered years of economic turmoil, those numbers are difficult to ignore, even if they are at the very high end as some have argued.

DOGGR's draft regulations will be open for public comment until Jan. 14, 2014. The final rule will go into effect Jan. 1, 2015. Further, the agency intends to establish "emergency regulations" by Jan. 1, 2014, to ensure that the major requirements of SB 4 are addressed in the meantime.

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