by Dan Aiello/California Progress Report
The Brown administration Tuesday proposed new draft regulations that would require the oil industry to disclose where its California oil extraction operations are using hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” in advance of a new movie meant to bring public awareness to the environmental destruction caused by the practice.
While an oil industry spokesman says his industry is “resigned” to the long-awaited new regulations, environmentalists claim the out-of-state and resource tax-exempt oil companies largely ignore the state’s current regulations, despite earning record profits in recent years, and the governor’s proposal of new regulations will do little more than placate the public’s concern over fracking, a concern expected to increase along with awareness of the issue, once “Promised Land” opens in California theaters December 28th.
More regulations without sufficient monitoring of an arrogant oil industry wont protect California’s water supply or fertile California farmland, argued leading environmental lobbyists in Sacramento, disappointed by the governor’s announcement.
“Promised Land,” starring Matt Damon and filmed largely outside of California, is meant to bring public awareness to the environmental destruction of fracking, which environmentalists claim oil producers encourage media to refer to as “controversial” because the term suggests there may be some debate as to whether or not fracking is destructive.
According to opponents of fracking, including those who wrote and produced “Promise Land,” there is no doubt about the irreparable damage fracking has had on hundreds of acres of California farmland, nor is there any debate over some 2.8 trillion gallons of waterfrom the endangered Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta estuary, conveyed south via the state’s taxpayer-funded water conveyance system and syphoned off in county’s like Kern by a tax-exempt oil industry and turned into highly toxic waste- or “produced” water capable of polluting local groundwater tables by negligent or illegal fracking operations.
Fracking not only has the potential of destroying otherwise fertile and productive California farmland and groundwater supplies, as in “Promise Land,” it already has.
Fred Starrh, a longtime Kern County farmer, turned on his irrigation system one spring to water his vast productive almond orchards. Starrh’s watering system was designed to pump groundwater from a well on his property into the farm’s hundreds of acres of productive California almond trees.
But instead of hydrating his orchards, it killed them. Every tree. After a single watering.
In the first of two lawsuits filed by Starrh against a Chevron subsidiary, Aera Oil, Starrh’s suit claimed groundwater beneath his farm had been so contaminated by Aera’s nearby fracking operation that it was so toxic it killed every tree in the orchard after a single irrigation, while also rendering hundreds of acres of fertile Central Valley farmland barren and unable now to sustain life.
Kern County still produces 10 percent of the nation’s domestic oil supply, once accounting for 37 percent. But the area’s oil is what is known as “heavy oil,” say oil industry representatives, and water and steam have been a necessary tool in the extraction of Kern’s tar-like oil deposits.
The oil industry, despite the depleted oil fields, still dominates politics and public policies, state and county-held offices. And the county remains a place where a local official might “turn a blind eye” to oil industry practices, including Aera’s syphoning of 1.46 million gallons of water each week – intended by the State Water Project for homes and agriculture – for fracking, according to Jeremy Miller for the environmental news producer, High Country News.
But despite the industry’s influence in the region, Starrh – after a second trial – won suit against Aera’s illegal fracking operations, a moment when a Kern County jury sided against big oil, finding Aera guilty of a flagrant disregard for the environmental impact company executives knew would occur from the migration into Kern County groundwater of fracking “produced water.”
Starrh was eventually awarded $8.5 million dollars in damages.
During the trial both the jury and the press learned how, in a story reflecting PG&E’s actions as portrayed in the film “Erin Brockovich”, that Aera management knowingly and with wonton disregard for the impact to local groundwater chose to violate state regulations requiring “lined” holding ponds built to contain the waste or “produced” water in order to cut costs despite the industry’s record profits from increasing gas prices the industry charges California drivers.
“Our groundwater resources need to be protected from oil and gas development to prevent what happened to the farmer in this case from happening again,” said Stockton’s state Senator Lois Wolk (D), a stalwart defender of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, California’s largest and most endangered estuary, from which Aera drew the water it used to contaminate Kern groundwater.
“I am monitoring the development of state regulations governing hydraulic fracturing and am hopeful that, once adopted, these regulations would not only protect water quality from the impacts of fracking in the future, but let Californians know just how much water is being used for fracking purposes, given our limited supply,” said Wolk, who continues to be a strong advocate for the adoption of a state policy of regional water sustainability, and abandonment of the costly construction of another canal of the BDCP. Further canal construction would continue the state’s politics and practices of resource exhaustion that have historically caused most of California’s water wars.
Sen. Wolk’s regional water sustainability plan is only possible if local groundwater supplies throughout the state remain potable.
The oil industry’s thirst for California’s other precious liquid is not widely known outside the state’s environmental organizations and the oil industry itself. And oil producer’s thirst is growing as the depleted oil fields are exhausted. A decade ago, Kern County produced almost an equal amount of polluted wastewater as it did oil from fracking, approximately a 1:1 ratio. By 2008, the barrels of oil were significantly reduced while the amount of water used to produce them had grown by 100 million barrels, annually, a 3:1 ratio. And the amount of wastewater produced by Kern County annually continues to rise in the face of ever-decreasing oil production.
In the case of Chevron-controlled Aera oil, company executives and engineers knowingly violated the state’s Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) regulationsmeant to protect Kern’s groundwater when they made the cost-cutting decision not to line the ponds that are supposed to, if properly constructed, prevent wastewater “migration” to local groundwater below.
There is no reversing the contamination caused by Aera, the damage to the land and water is irreparable. And the executives and Aera and Chevron corporations, unlike BP, are not being held accountable by the state for cleanup of the site.
With the strongest political lobby in Sacramento, its no surprise that the state’s water quality board and DOGGR staff charged with oversight of fracking operations, are few and far between, or that oil producers like Aera feel immune to the consequences of cost-cutting decisions that violate DOGGR regulations.
And with the money saved from denying California its own resource extraction tax the oil industry continues to invest in its political influence in Sacramento over DOGGR policies and Department of Water Resources’ environmental regulations.
Even if California’s electorate is largely unaware of the oil industry’s influence over the state’s legislature, elected representatives from throughout the state are keenly aware of the political risk that come with opposing the industry’s interests.
According to the Secretary of State’s political action committee records, all of the major corporations that comprise the nation’s oil industry, despite being headquartered out-the-state, maintain California political action committees (PACs) for maintaining the requirement of a two-thirds majority for any revenue generating legislation.
These PACs, through which millions of dollars in campaign contributions flow to retain enough anti-extraction tax (97 percent Republican) representatives in the legislature, have successfully prevented the state from receiving billions of dollars in oil revenue, thwarting extraction tax proposed nearly every legislative session. Resource extraction revenue is paid by these corporations to every other state government in the nation and every nation in the world. But in California’s state legislature, as in Kern County, oil is king and legislators here oppose oil at their own peril.
Last year legislation calling for a tax of oil at a rate just half the severance charged by Texas, Alaska and Louisiana intended to help offset cuts to education was defeated by pro-oil (97 percent Republican) legislators.
The defeated bill would have generated approximately $1 billion dollars annually for the coffers of a cash-strapped California (calculated at the current total production rate of 222 million barrels annually). California taxpayers instead voted to tax themselves to pay for education while the oil industry maintained its “California bonus” tax exempt status.
The oil extraction or severance tax ties into the issue of fracking closely because revenue generated by it would pay for state inspection of the highly profitable but largely unmonitored California oil industry.
State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) who had struggled last session to navigate her ‘fracking’ monitoring bill, SB 1054, through a hostile state legislature, told the Bakersfield Californian that the governor’s proposal is not a solution, but did say it was “a first step.”
“The public is asking, and perhaps rightly so, what are they (the oil producers) trying to hide?” Pavley said in a May, 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times about her bill, which was defeated.
The severance also has been used to restore environments decimated by oil disasters or just through normal production. Governments need the revenue to restore abandoned oil fields or, in the case of Louisiana, restoration of its fragile Delta wetlands that were again decimated by the BP gulf disaster. In fact, Louisiana’s restoration of miles of coastal wetlands, completed using its extraction tax revenue just prior to the BP oil spill, was credited with preventing the extinction of several species native to Louisiana’s endangered estuaries, acting as a buffer between the restored wetlands and what was left of the Mississipi Delta, marshes largely erased by a poorly thought out US Corps of Engineers’ “straightening” of the Mississippi river mouth to the gulf.
In the case of restoring the groundwater under Starrh’s Kern County farm, California has no such restoration fund and still remains the only government in the world not to charge oil producers a royalty for the removal of a finite natural resource.
See how scientists believe fracking contaminates our drinking waters supplies here.