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Fracking fight fractures some Capitol alliances

5:39 PM, Aug 21, 2013   |    comments
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There's an old adage that if people on opposite sides of an issue are both mad at you, then you must be doing something right.

Of course, those warring sides think it's proof that you're on the wrong track.

The Capitol's own version of this familiar tale in 2013: the fight over the oil drilling method known as fracking.  And it has produced an odd political alliance between would seem like sworn enemies.

The Assembly's appropriations committee heard testimony Wednesday both for and against Senate Bill 4 and its new state regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  The committee placed the measure by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, on the suspense file... though the bill is almost certain to move forward in the Legislature's final weeks.

The bill has been amended eight times since its introduction and is unlikely to be fully cooked as its backers seek the magic formula for legislative success.

"I think it's important that the Legislature have a vehicle and a voice," said Pavley in her comments to the Assembly committee.

But its current iteration has drawn criticism from both the oil industry and the Sierra Club, both of which had representatives sitting together at the witness table Wednesday morning.

For the industry, it is the bill's expansion beyond just hydraulic fracturing.

"When the bill left the Senate floor, the bill was somewhat more narrow," said Paul Diero, a lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association.

The industry opposes the bill's effort to regulate all kinds of so-called 'oil well stimulation,' which includes the uses of acid compounds to bring the oil to the surface.

On the other side, the Sierra Club opposes SB 4's requirement for public disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process -- arguing it's not enough transparency.

Kathryn Phillips, the organization's California director, says the public needs to know not just the chemicals involved but also the concentration of those chemicals being used -- information that the oil industry considers to be trade secrets.

"Companies like Halliburton can say, 'We're claiming trade secrets'," said Phillips in a recent interview.  "In order to effectively monitor and assess what the environmental impacts are, we need to know the quantities and concentrations."

The Sierra Club, however, finds itself virtually alone among politically active environmental groups; several other heavy hitters all support SB 4 as better than no legislation at all.  Sen. Pavley, perhaps the Legislature's most prominent environmental activist, told assemblymembers Wednesday that while her bill doesn't go as far as the Sierra Club wants, it does mandates that oil companies disclose the precise mixture of fracking chemicals to state and local officials in the event of an emergency.

The negotiations have also included top aides to Gov. Jerry Brown, whose own proposed amendments to SB 4 are more closely aligned to the demands of the oil industry... and thus, seem to be a nonstarter with environmentalists.

"Serious analysis is what's required" in the negotiations, said Brown when I asked him about the issue on Monday after the Lake Tahoe Summit.

The governor's administration is also moving forward on its own fracking regulations, though it seems clear the Legislature wants to enact its own rules that would carry the full force of state law.

All of these moving parts suggest the bill -- the last remaining Capitol proposal dealing with hydraulic fracturing and some of the most sweeping in the nation -- has a long ways to go before the final gavel next month.

"Stay tuned," Sen. Pavley said on Wednesday.


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