Are regulators at the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources free to make decisions in the public interest? Despite serious complaints voiced by farmers and environmentalists in Kern County, state regulators over the past year and more have waived environmental review for dozens of controversial new gas and oil drilling operations.
The drilling permit issue has highlighted Gov. Jerry Brown's open hostility to the California Environmental Quality Act. "I have never seen a CEQA exemption I didn't like," the governor said last summer. That came after Brown fired two officials of the Department of Conservation who had been slow to grant waivers. Their replacements have since handed out more than two dozen drilling permits with scarcely any environmental review, the Los Angeles Times reported in an article reprinted in The Bee on Monday.
According to the Times, oil and gas firms gave more than $1.1 million to the governor's tax initiative campaign following personnel changes at the agency.
Farmers and oil companies have worked happily side by side in Kern County for decades. But in recent months farmers have raised legitimate concerns about a controversial drilling technique, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process requires pumping huge quantities of water, sand and chemicals under very high pressure down well bores. The drilling operation creates or expands fissures in underground geologic formations, allowing release of oil and gas, which has led to a new energy boom across the nation.
Thousands of people have been put back to work as a result. But critics complain fracking may be depleting and contaminating underground water supplies and that it may even trigger earthquakes.
One farmer whose concerns were detailed by the Times has sued. He wants the state to perform a full environmental review before permitting an energy company to drill an exploratory well on his property.
A handful of environmentalist organizations have filed a separate lawsuit. They say state regulators have violated CEQA by granting drilling permits without first evaluating the potential environmental impacts of fracking.
Pushback from critics may be having an impact. The Conservation Department has held a series of workshops on the issue and is expected to have its first-ever set of draft fracking regulations ready for review by next year.
Environmentalists are split on how tightly the department should regulate fracking. Some think the technique is inherently dangerous and should be banned outright. Others want a moratorium on new wells until adequate regulations are in place.
Given that natural gas is a better alternative than coal in generating electricity, there's a reasonable argument to be made that either a ban or moratorium on fracking wouldn't be in the best interest of the state's overall energy interests.
Nonetheless, state regulators can no longer ignore the potential dangers. New regulations must be robust. At minimum, energy companies should be required to give regulators and the public notice about when and where fracking will take place and how close it will be to any active earthquake fault; how much water will be used and where it will come from; what chemicals will be used and where; and how wastewater, used chemicals and other drilling debris will be disposed of.
Regulators must demonstrate they are working to safeguard the public, not to make life easier for energy companies with political clout.