In another clash with Gov. Gavin Newsom over energy and environmental policies, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 with one absence Tuesday to formally object to a state regulatory proposal that would ban oilfield well stimulation treatments such as fracking starting in 2024.
The afternoon vote followed a brief staff presentation characterizing the ban introduced last month by the Newsom administration as a "direct attack" on Kern's oil industry, which accounts for an estimated 97 percent of California well stimulation permits.
Fracking uses water, sand and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals to open access to underground oil and natural gas reservoirs. Environmentalists say it threatens groundwater supplies and harms air quality, though some have said they oppose the technique mainly because it promotes oil production that contributes to climate change.
Industry representatives who addressed the board Tuesday defended the practice, saying there are no documented instances of dangerous chemicals being released to drinking water during fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing. No one got up to speak to the board Tuesday in favor of banning fracking.
In 2013, after much study and debate, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed California's first law specific to fracking. It instituted what are considered some of the world's strictest rules on the process.
Newsom, under intense pressure from environmental activists, has taken steps to toughen state oversight of the practice. Last fall he additionally called on the state Legislature to pass a bill banning the technique, drawing scorn from county supervisors.
The legislation that followed, however, proposed banning a number of oilfield processes, not just fracking, and it ended up dying after attracting opposition from labor unions. Soon after, Newsom called on the California Geologic Energy Management Division to issue a rule prohibiting new fracking permits as of Jan. 1, 2024. Last month CalGEM issued a draft rule to that end.
A Tuesday report by Lorelei Oviatt, director of Kern's Planning and Natural Resources Department, disputed popular criticisms of California fracking, including assertions it uses large amounts of fresh water and that fluid used in the process contains undisclosed chemicals.
She wrote that a ban would increase oil imports from countries with lesser human rights and environmental protections, that only the Legislature has the authority to enact a ban and that ending fracking would slash Kern County government revenues.
Oviatt also expressed concerns a ban would "send a chilling message" to companies being recruited to California. She said that, based on oil's experience, they could have their innovations banned for political purposes.
"What industry is next?" her report to the board asked.
A report prepared by the Florida-based law firm of Holland & Knight LLP and included in Tuesday's staff report concluded CalGEM's draft rule would have profound adverse consequences for Kern's economy and increase greenhouse gas emissions through greater reliance on transportation of imports.
It added that the draft exceeds the division's legal authority because only the state Legislature has the power to ban fracking.
All four county supervisors on hand for the meeting — Supervisor Leticia Perez was not present for Tuesday's vote — spoke up against the Newsom administration's attempts to ban fracking.
Supervisor Zack Scrivner said the proposed ban plays to what he called the governor's radical environmental base, and Supervisor Mike Maggard said the board will do everything it can to change Sacramento's anti-oil environment.
Supervisor David Couch moved to oppose the proposed ban and send CalGEM a letter outlining the county's position.
"We're under attack again," he said, "and it’s time we do exactly what we’re doing today.”