California’s Coming War Over Fracking

The passage of a ballot initiative raising taxes to deal with a chronic budget crisis, and the achievement of super-majorities in both state legislative chambers by Democrats, have for the moment relieved California’s perpetual political gridlock, in a way (total victory for one side!) that may represent the only hope for ending national political gridlock as well. But residents of the Golden State better enjoy the relative peace. Because there is every indication that California politics could soon be plunged into an all-consuming fight over rules governing the exploitation of petroleum reserves by fracking technology. Here are the basics from the New York Times‘ Norimitsu Onishi:

Comprising two-thirds of the United States’s total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas….

Established companies are expanding into the Monterey Shale, while newcomers are opening offices in Bakersfield, the capital of California’s oil industry, about 40 miles east of here. With oil prices remaining high, landmen are buying up leases on federal land, sometimes bidding more than a thousand dollars an acre in auctions that used to fetch the minimum of $2….

The Monterey Shale has also galvanized California’s powerful environmental groups. They are pressing the state to strictly regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique that has fueled the shale oil and gas boom elsewhere but has drawn opposition from many environmentalists. In December, the State Department of Conservation released a draft of fracking rules, the first step in a yearlong process to establish regulations.

As in other parts of the country, disputes over fracking are multi-dimensional. Some environmentalists have focused on the immediate dangers associated with the practice, such as air pollution, land poisoning, and public health risks–and in California, the unavoidable question of seismic consequences. As Grist‘s Susie Cagle notes, the area where the bulk of the fracking activity would take place doesn’t exactly sport a healthy environment to begin with:

California’s Central Valley already has enough pollution to contend with from toxic farming chemicals that have leaked into groundwater. The Fresno metro area has the worst air quality in the country, topping Forbes’ list of the dirtiest U.S. cities in 2012.

But the Central Valley also has the state’s most difficult and sustained economic problems, with unemployment well above national and state averages and pockets of poverty worse than any in the Deep South.

California’s traditional east-west split in politics (both cutting across and reinforcing partisan divisions), culture and economics will be vastly intensified by a big state regulatory fight over tracking. And that’s aside from the much larger debate, which is likely to break into national politics with a vengeance very soon, as to whether new technologies for exploitation of petroleum reserves represent the promise of a new Golden Age of prosperity and energy independence, or a horrific inducement to increased dependence on fossil fuels at a time when action to head off climate change has become urgent.

Those who quite rightly complained that environmental issues were submerged during the 2012 election cycle are about to get their wish for a nationally prominent debate. But because at the moment regulation of fracking is mostly a state issue, it will break out most intensely in states where opinion is sharply divided over the practice. It’s hard to imagine a sharper division than we are already beginning to see in California, where new draft regulations sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown are already drawing fire from both sides.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.