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Battle lines drawn in Legislature's focus on fracking

On the first day of California's new legislative session lines were already being drawn in the next battle over hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the lightly used but politically fraught oilfield technique more common in Kern than anywhere else in the state.

Lawmakers unsatisfied with the results of California's attempt at regulating fracking in 2013 have declared they will answer Gov. Gavin Newsom's call in September for a bill banning the practice statewide by 2024.

By Tuesday afternoon no such legislation had been introduced in Sacramento. But on Monday the Speaker of the Assembly cautiously weighed in on the subject, and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, introduced an "intent bill" to ensure any talk of banning fracking take into account the potential economic toll on the southern Central Valley.

“The oil debate in California often leaves out an important detail — oil workers make real money to provide for real families and that generates real economic activity that won’t be replaced by a slogan or a banner,” Hurtado said in a news release accompanying her introduction of Senate Bill 25.

Fracking's political symbolism has arguably overtaken its practical significance in California. A main driver behind the Midwest's "shale revolution," it is responsible for only about 2 percent of the Golden State's total production.

The process blasts water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals deep underground to open oil reservoirs.

Environmental activists say it leads to greenhouse-gas releases and puts groundwater quality at risk. The oil industry says California already has the world's toughest fracking regulations and that Sacramento's continued assault on oil production will only increase petroleum imports as internal-combustion engines are slowly phased out.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in a written statement he is working with a coalition of legislators to introduce legislation that would phase out fracking. California needs to lead the transition away from fossil fuels as the state witnesses the "devastating impacts of climate change," he stated.

He added there will be consideration for affected workforces.

"As we make this shift away from fossil fuels, we must support workers and help them transition to other good-paying jobs," Wiener wrote.

Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle in September he wants the practice prohibited sooner than 2024. He added that details had not yet been sorted out.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a speech to the chamber Monday that California "must build on the work that we are doing on climate change," which he blamed for recent wildfires. But he emphasized that "we need to ensure that economic inequality does not grow" as the Legislature works toward a cleaner economy.

"California cannot put the brakes on carbon-generating industries," he said, "without having a strategy to support the Californians working in those industries."

In the last legislative session Newsom set aside money to help figure out how the state can achieve carbon neutrality by its stated goal of 2045. But his administration has not yet released a promised plan for how that will happen without damaging communities like those in Kern that rely on oil production as an economic base.

Rock Zierman, head of one of the oil industry groups most active in Sacramento, the California Independent Petroleum Association, noted by email that Newsom has significantly heightened scrutiny of fracking already.

He called for focusing instead on how to remove bureaucratic barriers to carbon capture and sequestration, an expensive technology aimed at sucking heat-trapping gas out of the atmosphere and storing it permanently underground. Researchers have said the technology appears to be well-suited to Kern County.

Hurtado's office said Tuesday SB 25 is essentially a placeholder to spur conversation and promote compromise. The goal is to have the bill evolve along with ideas about how to address fracking this legislative session.

As it stands, the legislation insists that any jobs or economic activity affected by tightening rules on fracking be "fully compensated for, and retained" to protect oil workers and their communities.

“The people of Kern County live in one of the top oil-producing counties in the nation, and they ought to be leading any discussion of how state policy affects their economy and environment," Hurtado stated in Monday's news release.

"The valley is also home to some of the poorest communities in the state, hit hard by this raging pandemic," she continued, "so reforms to this regulatory system must come with effective investment in, and support of, the workers and communities of the southern Central Valley.”