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Environment & Science

Haefele: Sign the fracking bill, Governor. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Protestors stage a demonstration against fracking in California outside of the Hiram W. Johnson State Office Building on May 30, 2013 in San Francisco.
Protestors stage a demonstration against fracking in California outside of the Hiram W. Johnson State Office Building on May 30, 2013 in San Francisco.
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UPDATE: Governor Brown signed SB4 on Friday.

AP: Brown said in his signing message that SB4 "establishes strong environmental protections and transparency requirements," but that he will seek some additional changes next year to clarify the new requirements. His spokesman, Evan Westrup, declined to elaborate on what those amendments will attempt to address. The governor added in his message that he will direct the state Department of Conservation to group drilling permits based on factors such as geologic conditions and environmental impacts when possible as a way to boost efficiency. He also said the department's permit-review system should allow for "more particularized review" of permit applications when necessary.

After months of foot dragging in the Legislature, the state’s first law regulating the controversial gas and oil drilling process called fracking is awaiting Governor Brown's signature.

Back in May, media and corporate managers were treated to a fantastic 5-course lunch to help persuade us of the feasibility of natural gas as a motor fuel, now that it costs half as much as gasoline.  No one mentioned that the reason the fuel had got so cheap was because of a process called fracking, but then no one had to. This was a production of the American Natural Gas Alliance, to whom the fracking industry is part of “America’s shale revolution … a game-changer for the entire American economy.” 

They mean change for the better. A recent 70-page report sponsored by the alliance declared that fracked gas has already made the average US household $1,200 dollars richer, and that number will keep going up. The cheap gas isn’t just making electricity cheaper, according to the report. It’s making plastics, manufactured goods and even artificial fertilizers—and hence food -- cheaper.  The report predicts a golden century of plentiful energy.

But there are those who consider the game change a loser. “Snake Oil,” a book by Richard Heinberg, of the Santa Rosa-based Post Carbon Institute, throws cold water on the frack gas promise. Heinberg accuses frack fomenters such as the alliance of “taking the highest imaginable resource estimate’’ and “the highest possible recovery rates” then adding them up to produce the fantasy of a 100-year cheap energy boom … when the reality might bust at 10 or 20 years.

Of course nearly every conservation group sees fracking as a threat—to the water supply, to livestock health, to farming, to the American landscape itself. From Texas to Pennsylvania to Ohio,  stories of flaming faucets and poisoned wells have filled the media, leading to attempts to regulate fracking that have, in most states, fizzled due to the political clout of the energy industry and the fact that fracking does produce jobs and generally pays well for leases.

But California's lawmakers have produced such a law. It’s surprising that it’s run into late opposition from groups who’ve battled for such regulation elsewhere. In opposing Democratic Senator Fran Pavley’s SB 4, the LA Times editorialized that it wasn’t tough enough. (The editorial drew a lengthy "clarification" from Sen. Pavley.)

But environmentalists have moved beyond that objection -- now they want to stop fracking altogether.  They know that even natural gas contributes to global warming, while wind and solar power do not.  And of course crude oil is much worse. The new consensus wants to junk SB 4 and seek a total ban next year.

SB 4 is now sitting on the governor's desk. He has until Oct. 13 to sign it. I think he should.

The major California fracking focus is the Monterey Shale region – 16,000 square miles of central California that could hold a different energy revolution-- 15 billion barrels of oil, plus unknown amounts of gas. The problem is getting it. Experts on both sides agree that Monterey shale layers have been so twisted over millions of years by California’s savage techtonics that extant fracking techniques may not work.  

But what if they do work?

What if Monterey offers our state the biggest frack in the nation? Vast riches for our still faltering economy? Thousands of new—if mostly short term-- jobs all over some of California’s poorest regions? Then it will be far harder to pass any fracking regulation in Sacramento, let alone a complete ban. No, this is the law we can have now and that makes it a good law. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

As Pavley puts it, “The world won’t be perfect if SB 4 passes, but it will be a whole lot better.”


Marc Haefele is a regular Off-Ramp commentator. Please respond to his opinions in the comments section below.