Oil producers in western Kern County could escape some proposed fracking regulations under an industry plan that has drawn a skeptical response from environmentalists.
A trade group is talking with state lawmakers about drawing a distinction between modern hydraulic fracturing in highly populated areas and the kind of less-intensive fracking that has gone on for decades in western Kern.
The proposal, still in exploratory stages, is based on the idea that places like the Belridge area have only undrinkable groundwater and no nearby residents or commercial farming.
The California Independent Petroleum Association, which last month floated the proposal with members of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, said fracking in western Kern is also distinct in that it consumes much less water than is used in other places such as the Shafter area.
CIPA CEO Rock Zierman estimated that more than three-quarters of the fracking done in California happens in western Kern.
"All this debate about water quality, seismology and people living on the surface is moot in 80 percent of all (California) hydraulic fracturing to date," he said.
Legislators declined to address the proposal until they have seen details, although Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said in a written statement that she is "willing to listen" to CIPA's ideas.
"As a CSU Fresno graduate, I know that San Joaquin Valley residents share a concern about local air and water quality impacts. Agricultural interests also want to make sure that their water supply is protected. But until (CIPA) or a member of the Legislature releases an actual proposal, we cannot comment."
Zierman shied from calling the idea an "exemption" for western Kern, saying it would merely create two sets of fracking rules. He said the group has not decided what special provisions -- for example, well testing proposed under draft fracking rules released in December -- should apply elsewhere but not in western Kern.
Fracking has been done in western Kern County since the 1950s. It injects water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to release hard-to-get petroleum deposits. The practice has gained many foes because of its potential to contaminate groundwater, pollute the air and induce seismic activity.
Reaction from environmentalists
Environmentalists contend that California's fracking rules should be uniform across the state.
A representative of the Environmental Defense Center, which has been active on the California coast but not in Kern, said CIPA's proposal would amount to an inappropriate "carve-out."
"Generally speaking, we would advocate for a level playing field of protections," said Brian Segee, a staff attorney for the center.
Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs for the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, was also skeptical of the proposal, which was new to him.
"I think there's a lot of questions before we say, 'Sure, why not?'" Allayaud said.
Zierman said his group's idea was partly inspired by comments from statements by Democratic lawmakers that perhaps more stringent fracking rules should apply in areas near drinkable water, residents and commercial activity.
"Perhaps," he said, "there needs to be higher level of regulation in those areas."