LETTER FROM SACRAMENTO: The Fracking Battle Stakes

Monday, April 1, 2013


Dear Sierran,

Kern County, the home of Bakersfield, has given California a lot of neat things: kit foxes, a gateway to the Southern Sierra, Buck Owens (I love classic country music).

But it is also ground zero for some of the most polluting activities in the state, if not the nation. This is where Big Oil is in charge. This is where California's dependence on planet-defiling, lung-corroding crude and its fueling products really got going more than 110 years ago with discovery of the Kern River oil field.

This is where the effects of that dependence are most obvious and eye opening. The air is dirty, parts of the landscape unsightly, the groundwater quality uncertain, and the politics bizarre.

Earlier this month, I spent a weekend with our incredibly productive and dedicated Kern-Kaweah Chapter members in the heart of California's oil country. At one point, a few took me to a very nice Bakersfield neighborhood that reminded me of some of the nicer neighborhoods in coastal Los Angeles County. We pulled alongside a strip of park lining one side of the boulevard, got out of the car, and strolled to the edge of the park to take in the view.

There, before us, for as far as the eye could see, were bare dirt rolling hills crowded with oil rigs. Scattered among the rigs were power plants to keep the rigs running. On our drive to that view, my hosts pointed out various other oil drilling operations, noting the telltale signs of the kind of hydrofracturing or fracking that the oil industry has participated in without regulation for decades in California.

On a day-to-day basis, it is easy to forget what we're fighting for in Sacramento. There's a grinding cynicism here that can be contagious. But that visit to Kern County was a solid reminder that demanding change in state policies that aid and abet oil dependence is righteous and necessary.

So what are we doing in Sacramento?

Recently, it became clear that unregulated fracking could expand dramatically on the 1700-square-mile Monterey Shale formation that runs from Los Angeles County to the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, including Kern County, and to the coast. This revelation has helped drive up concern about fracking's impacts.

Even before the threat of new drilling became clear, Sierra Club California staff and volunteers got active in a coalition of environmental groups and others that are determined to bring fracking under control. Ten bills have been introduced this year in the legislature related to controlling fracking, a practice that has been used to escalate natural gas production around the country and brought with it degraded air, water and lives. We support most of those bills.

Additionally, along with our Kern-Kaweah Chapter and our national organization, we are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state agency that oversees oil permits, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). In a nutshell, that agency has historically been captured by the oil industry and hasn't been doing the kind of analysis and oversight that the law and common sense suggest drilling permits demand.

Our volunteers are also actively monitoring and helping comment on new fracking regulations DOGGR is trying to develop. The early draft, by the way, is not encouraging.

What is Sierra Club California aiming to achieve with all of this fracking policy activity? Two critical things:

First, we want a moratorium on any new fracking until there's certainty that it is not and will not harm public health and the environment. We want to know what the chemicals the industry is using in fracking and in what quantities and how that is effecting the environment. The oil industry is always talking about wanting regulatory certainty. That's what we want, too: Certainty that Big Oil's practices won't leave us with a dirtier world.

Second, we want to break Big Oil's dominance of California politics and policy. This industry puts millions upon millions of dollars into its lobbying efforts every year and has some of the most effective folks in its lobbying corps. One state Senator from Kern County (Michael Rubio) recently resigned to work on external affairs for a big oil company (Chevron), further illustrating oil's power. The industry has easy access to the governor, and he tends to enthusiastically embrace it.

Are we aiming high? You bet. But the stakes demand it. If Big Oil wins on fracking in California, that startling vista of oil wells, that gauzy air pollution, that worry about groundwater quality, will be a heartbreak that extends way beyond Bakersfield more powerfully than any Buck Owens ballad. 



Kathryn Phillips               

Kathryn Phillips, Director                             
Sierra Club California                                  

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.