From Culver City to the Inglewood Oil Fields
by Diane Lefer
Since I don’t ordinarily attend Chamber of Commerce meetings or Tea Party gatherings, I’m not used to hearing hundreds of people object to new regulations for industry, but when the California Department of Conservation sent representatives from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to Culver City on June 12 for a workshop seeking input on how to regulate fracking, the community response was close to unanimous: Don’t regulate!
What the standing-room-only and overflow crowd of several hundred people wanted instead was a total ban.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, makes it possible to exploit oil and gas resources that were formerly too difficult or expensive to reach — factors which, until recently, left California’s oil fields in a state of decline. Today, horizontal drilling techniques make it possible to access distant sources. Then, the high-pressure injection of water mixed with chemicals forces the oil or gas up to where it can be pumped or skimmed off the surface, but the process is controversial enough that it has been entirely banned by the State of Vermont and the whole country of France.
Fracking is already taking place in California though the locations, extent and frequency are unknown.
Culver City mayor Andy Weissman called for a moratorium until DOGGR could assure the community that fracking poses no threat to air quality, water quality, ground movement, or public health. Culver City would act alone, he said, but the municipality had been told only DOGGR had the authority. Besides, the problem is multi-jurisdictional and regional. Culver City is concerned about accidents and negative impacts from the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field, Weissman explained, but has no say over what happens in the 90% of the field lying in unincorporated LA County.
Residents of Culver City, Baldwin Hills, and adjacent areas already know what it’s like to cope with polluted air and noxious odors, sinkholes, cracks in their houses, contamination with toxic sludge (like that which closed the popular Boneyard Dog Park for months), and memories of disasters including the breached Baldwin Hills dam that flooded the area killing five and destroying 277 homes, said Gary Gless of Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. In recent years, after PXP (Plains Exploration and Production Company) acquired the field and ramped up production, he said, the area has seen increased rates of cancer and lung disease. Not to mention anxiety over drilling around the Newport-Inglewood fault.
Risks and impact reported elsewhere in the country include seismic activity in Ohio and water contaminated with toxins in Wyoming. The oil and gas industry says there is no evidence for any of this or, as a supporter said on Tuesday, opponents to fracking were influenced by “political science rather than real science.”
Forbes was happy to report that the EPA determined fracking was not the cause of Ohio’s tremors but also reported that the seismic activity was attributed to injection of wastewater into deep disposal wells. (Much of the recent increase in volume of such waste came from drilling and fracking.) And where is the “real science” to come from? For example, in Pennsylvania — the state most affected so far by fracking, physicians treating patients for toxic exposure have had to sign confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements before gas and oil companies would reveal the chemicals added to water in the process. This information cannot be communicated to patients or public health agencies, making it impossible to conduct epidemiological studies. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005 created the so-called Halliburton loophole, exempting chemicals and other fluids injected during the fracking process from provisions meant to protect the public.
Industry representatives spoke up to remind everyone of the importance of the oil industry and energy security while local residents argued that any dependence on fossil fuels leaves us insecure and headed for climate change disaster. Uncertainty should mandate caution. “The harm can be incalculable,” Weissman said. “There are no do-overs.”
When Jim Waterhouse of Citizens Climate Lobby asked, “How many people feel regulation can work?”, only one hand went up though there were several industry representatives in attendance — either shy, discreet, or, as Nick Ortiz of the Western States Petroleum Association later told us, they believe existing regulations are already “robust.” So “robust” that now, without new regulations, said Jason Marshall, DOGGR’s chief deputy director, the State can’t even require the industry to report where they are fracking and what chemicals they are using. All reporting is now voluntary.
Even if mandated, reports would be compiled by FracFocus, a clearinghouse that activists deride because many of the commissioners who oversee the program are industry executives or lobbyists.
Regulation, argued community members, would give fracking legitimacy or, as one resident put it, decide in how orderly a manner we can go about destroying the environment. And no matter how restrictive regulations might be, without the resources for inspection and enforcement and with minimal consequences for violations, regulations promise a degree of protection they cannot provide.
But a woman who leases her land to an oil company insisted the residents’ complaints were about drilling, not fracking.
Exactly. “How can we trust you on fracking,” Patricia McPherson, president of Grassroots Coalition, challenged DOGGR, “when we can’t get you to regulate regular oil fields?”
Other reasons for distrust: According to DOGGR, the process which has become so controversial on the East Coast is very different from what occurs or will occur in California. In the East, fracking is used to extract gas from shale. Here, we don’t have shale. (What about the Monterey shale that extends from the north right down through the LA basin and which is already being exploited?) In California, we were told, oil is extracted, not the riskier process for gas. (But Bloomberg recently reported that Jerry Brown is considering opening the state to fracking “to increase natural-gas production.”)
The simple diagrams and schematics DOGGR displayed reminded one speaker “of nothing more than Colin Powell in front of the United Nations,” while former mayor Steve Gourley was indignant that the DOGGR reps had not brought a map of Culver City showing the affected areas or apparently ever walked through the Inglewood Oil Field to see the contamination firsthand. Another former mayor, Gary Silbiger, called on the community to organize and plan a protest trip to Sacramento.
Some speakers were appreciative that DOGGR was listening — it seemed for the first time — to community members and not only to industry representatives and lobbyists. But why were only seven meetings planned? None for Carson, said Latrice Carter where the community has been frustrated over the environmental problems caused by Occidental Petroleum and wasn’t notified of the Culver City event. According to Yvonne Watson, PXP is drilling in the Montebello Hills and has a history of failing to maintain records of leaks. And why are the meetings only in English when so many oil operations are located in immigrant communities?
But perhaps of greatest concern: how much authority does DOGGR actually have? Officially, the division’s responsibility is for the permitting process for new wells, setting standards for well casings, and plugging abandoned wells that are idle and hazardous. Air quality and water quality are issues for other State agencies.
“I leave these meetings with my head hurting because I feel like it’s all smoke and mirrors.” said Ronda Brown, at-large representative of Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council. What she wanted to know was, does DOGGR actually have the authority not just to write regulations but to ban fracking altogether.
Marshall’s answer was a surprise: “Yes, we do have the authority to ban fracking.” But he added, “We start at the supposition that these practices can be regulated safely, but if we discover through this process that it can’t be, yes we can ban.”
Gathering evidence, then, is crucial. He thanked the registered nurse who provided medical journal articles about fracking and he urged people who know of other studies to send the information to him. He was realistic, however. There would also be input from industry and lobbyists and legislators. If DOGGR did decide to impose a ban, they would have to show evidence to the Office of Administrative Law and prove the ban was reasonable. If approved at that step, the proposed ban would be posted for more public comment. A final draft would also have to be approved. The earliest anything could be implemented would be at least a year from now.
Our legislature also has the authority to ban fracking, unlikely as that seems, given California’s repeated failure to impose a levy on oil and gas extraction. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “31 states specifically levy taxes on the extraction of oil and gas…. Between 10.5 percent and 74.3 percent of total state tax revenue came from severance taxes in at least six states — Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.”
Attempts to bring California in line have so far been blocked year after year either by the legislature or by governor’s veto. (Jerry Brown, while presiding over unprecedented cuts to education and having just rejected the legislature’s proposed budget, sending it back for more drastic cuts to human services, says he opposes such a levy as the companies already pay corporate tax and their employees pay income tax.)
The Culver City meeting was scheduled to end at 9 PM but Marshall kept the mike open for an additional hour and a half so all who wished to speak had two minutes to do so. He noted that the Culver City meeting was not the only one so far to draw an overflow, concerned, and passionate anti-fracking crowd.
If the seven DOGGR meetings — inadequate as they seem to some — help build a movement, the voices of so many citizens may help the legislature and governor find the political will to resist industry demands and impose a moratorium if not an outright ban.
DOGGR was in Long Beach on Wednesday. Still to come: Salinas (June 27), Santa Maria (July 11), and Sacramento (July 25). Whether or not you attend a meeting, Marshall says he will read recommendations and concerns in the body of an email or by attached Word document sent to [email protected]
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive (where this article originally appeared), and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.