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A formidable energy lobbying group has been pushing to relax permitting requirements in a bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing, a move advocates say would undercut the type of environmental review the bill seeks to establish.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking," involves firing a cocktail of chemicals and pressurized water deep underground to dislodge oil and gas locked in geological formations. It has become a prominent issue this session, with legislators floating several bills to regulate the process and bolster what they call lax oversight from the Department of Conservation arm responsible for oil and gas drilling.

All but one of those bills expired amid strenuous opposition from the energy industry. Senate Bill 4, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, has passed the Senate and awaits an Assembly floor vote.

The bill would have energy companies inform communities about planned fracking projects, mandate more disclosure of the type of chemicals used for various fracking jobs and create a permitting system for fracking -- triggering the type of environmental review associated with conventional oil and gas wells that currently require permits.

Now, with the window to send bills to the governor rapidly narrowing, the industry has begun lobbying legislators over the environmental review the bill would impose on fracking jobs. Industry representatives have warned that those requirements would bog down new projects, potentially entangling them in time-consuming litigation brought via the California Environmental Quality Act, according to several environmental groups that have sounded the alarm about the late lobbying effort.

The Western States Petroleum Association, a prominent trade group, "is getting traction with Democrats with this scare tactic of a de facto moratorium by there being an (environmental impact review) requested by environmental groups on every single well," said Bill Allayaud, a lobbyist for the Environmental Working Group.

Amendments to the bill accepted on Friday offer a framework to issue "statewide programmatic environmental impact reports" -- essentially broader reviews that would negate the need for a well-by-well process.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, declined to comment on the details of discussions with lawmakers but dismissed the notion that her organization is trying to avoid the CEQA review process, which the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, administers for wells.

"The environmental groups that are claiming that WSPA is trying to exempt hydraulic fracturing from CEQA review are just misstating the facts," Reheis-Boyd said, adding that the Western States Petroleum Association has regularly been in touch with the governor's office and the bill's authors.

But the association has written amendments that would remove language mandating a fracking permit, instead stipulating that companies would need to provide notice of the wells they plan to frack. That would be tantamount to removing environmental review, environmental groups say.

"When you ask to remove a permit from regulations, what that does is it creates a CEQA exemption," said Jena Price, a lobbyist for the California League of Conservation Voters.

Paralleling SB 4's progress is a lawsuit, brought against DOGGR by a coalition of environmental groups, charging that the agency has shirked its responsibility to analyze the environmental impacts of new wells.

"DOGGR's practice of approving permits for oil and gas wells after exempting such projects from environmental review or otherwise issuing boilerplate negative declarations finding no significant impacts from these activities undermines the fundamental review requirements of CEQA," the lawsuit reads.

PHOTO: Rig workers drill a saltwater well to get fluids to be used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking in Anthony, Kansas, in February 2012. Bo Rader/the Wichita Eagle.


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