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frack.jpgA bill to more tightly regulate the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing passed the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on a 6-2 vote Tuesday.

Fracking, as the extraction technique is commonly called, has become a flash point for environmental advocates as the process has become more commonplace in recent years.

California is in the incipient stages of regulating fracking -- shooting a mix of chemicals, sand and water deep underground.

Skeptics argue that fracking could endanger public health by contaminating water public water supplies. Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, the author of Senate Bill 4, called the bill a needed mechanism for holding the energy industry accountable.

"We need to at the minimum ensure that someone, some public agency, is monitoring the public health and safety of Californians," Pavley said.

The legislation would require the energy industry to disclose more information about the amount of water and types of chemicals it uses. It would also set up a permitting process, create a framework for tracking waste water and dictate that communities are notified 30 days in advance of a new well being constructed.

Energy industry advocates called the bill unnecessary, noting that the entity tasked with monitoring fracking -- the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR for short -- has written draft regulations and started holding public hearings.

But lawmakers supporting Pavley's bill accused DOGGR of delaying and then releasing vague, anemic regulations that would accomplish little.

"When it comes to whether or not we should let DOGGR lead, I think they have relinquished their right," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who voted for the bill.

Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group, registered their support. But they raised concerns about how robust the bill's disclosure requirements are when it comes to the chemical cocktails energy companies use to frack. The industry has argued that those recipes are protected trade secrets.

As the bill is currently written, energy companies would need to disclose the chemicals they are using to DOGGR, but trade secrets would remain publicly inaccessible.That provision led the Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, which backed the general principle of regulating fracking, to oppose the legislation.

"While it does address some of the environmental issues, it completely shortcuts and sidetracks the issue of public health," Angela Meszaros, the organization's general counsel, testified at Tuesday's hearing.

The bill would also direct the California Natural Resources Agency to choose someone to conduct a statewide study on the environmental impact of fracking. If that study is not completed by Jan, 1, 2015, it would prohibit DOGGR from issuing permits, effectively imposing a statewide moratorium on fracking. Energy industry representatives said fracking opponents could use that deadline as a cudgel, dragging out the study in an effort to curb fracking.

"I think unfortunately sometimes we're looking for studies to match what our predisposed" beliefs are," said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Associaton.

PHOTO CREDIT: Oil field workers drill into the Gypsum Hills near Medicine Lodge, Kan., using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." in 2012.
Associated Press/Orlin Wagner

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify that the study required under the bill would assess the potential statewide impact of fracking on the environment. Updated at 2:08 p.m. on April 11, 2013.


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