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October 4, 2013
Viewpoints: New law addresses practice of 'fracking'

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(Oct. 4 -- By Fran Pavley, Special to The Bee)

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke about the proliferation of cars in postwar America. "They mean progress for our country," he said. "They mean greater convenience for greater numbers of people, greater happiness, and greater standards of living. But we have got to learn to control the things that we must use ourselves, and not let them be a threat to our lives and to our loved ones."

Eisenhower was discussing the risks of car accidents, but he may as well have been speaking about oil. Nearly 60 years later, fossil fuels and automobiles are backbones of the economy and our quality of life in California. But the threat they pose to our future is also more apparent than ever: our air is the dirtiest in the nation, our water systems are stressed, and sea level rise and other climate risks threaten our ecology and our economy. We need to look honestly at our addiction to fossil fuels. That is why I authored Assembly Bill 32 in 2006; to cut pollution from fossil fuels and incentivize a cleaner, more efficient economy. That is also why I authored Senate Bill 4 this year; to hold the oil industry accountable for its actions and shed light on the impacts of new extraction techniques.

After nearly 150 years of drilling in California, our thirst for oil has depleted easy-to-reach reserves. Companies are exploring rock formations thousands of feet below the ground to reach previously unrecoverable oil. They are experimenting with an increasing number of unconventional extraction techniques including hydraulic fracturing, called fracking, and acidizing, which raise concerns about risks like groundwater contamination and earthquake impacts.

With the recent signing of SB 4, California took a critical first step toward transparency in an industry that has been operating under cover of darkness. Beginning Jan. 1, companies may not frack or acidize oil wells unless their compliance with all the environmental protections in SB 4 is certified in advance. Oil companies will now have to disclose on a public website all chemicals used - including ingredients previously withheld as trade secrets - notify neighbors of the fracking or acid job, and test any groundwater in the vicinity of the well before and after operations. Over the next year, scientists will conduct an independent study, drawing on reams of new data to assess the risks of new oil extraction technologies. The SB 4 framework leaves room for a moratorium by allowing additional restrictions to be imposed by the governor, state agencies, courts or local governments.

I authored SB 4 to address oil field practices that have been unmonitored and unregulated in California. The status quo is unacceptable. Many Californians believe a moratorium or a ban on fracking is the only way to protect the public, and I share their concerns. By enforcing the law immediately and shedding light on this activity, we will arm the public with detailed information about oil drilling in our state that can inform future decisions. Ultimately, if fracking and acidizing are allowed to continue, oil companies will need to pay for the true cost to California and avoid drilling in certain areas that are too close to drinking water, or pose an unreasonable risk to public health and safety.

With proper enforcement of AB 32 and SB 4, California's oil industry will receive the clear signal it needs to innovate into the cleanest, most efficient and most transparent industry in the world. We need to ensure gasoline and diesel oil sold in California are placed under AB 32's cap on greenhouse gases in 2015 as scheduled - power plants and large manufacturers are already covered. Likewise, SB 4 must be enforced with integrity starting Jan. 1. Our laws bar these large corporations from polluting for free.

Gov. Jerry Brown has already shown that California can prosper while holding polluters accountable. Despite dire warnings from industry-funded voices, neither SB 4 nor AB 32 will raise the cost of gasoline or shut off the supply of oil in California. Though cleaner cars are becoming more affordable and Californians will soon have to make fewer trips to the gas station, we will still rely on oil during this transition. With AB 32 and SB 4 as our guide, California can finally look itself in the mirror and take an honest approach to energy.

State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

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