A bill to more tightly regulate the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing cleared a Senate committee Tuesday.
Fracking, as the extraction technique is commonly called, has become a flash point for environmental advocates as the process has become more commonplace in recent years.
California is in the incipient stages of regulating fracking, which involves shooting a mix of chemicals, sand and water deep underground.
Skeptics argue that fracking could endanger public health by contaminating public water supplies. Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, the author of Senate Bill 4, called it a needed mechanism for holding the energy industry accountable.
"We need to, at the minimum, ensure that someone, some public agency, is monitoring the public health and safety of Californians," Pavley said.
The legislation, which passed the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on a 6-2 vote, would require the energy industry to disclose more information about the amount of water and types of chemicals it uses.
It also would set up a permitting process, create a framework for tracking wastewater and dictate that communities are notified 30 days in advance of a new well being constructed.
Energy industry advocates called the bill unnecessary, noting that the entity tasked with monitoring fracking the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR for short has written draft regulations and started holding public hearings.
But lawmakers supporting Pavley's bill accused DOGGR of delaying and then releasing vague, anemic regulations that would accomplish little.
"When it comes to whether or not we should let DOGGR lead, I think they have relinquished their right," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who voted for the bill.
Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group, registered their support. But they also raised concerns about how robust the bill's disclosure requirements are when it comes to the chemical cocktails energy companies use to frack. The industry has argued that those recipes are protected trade secrets.
As the bill is currently written, energy companies would need to disclose the chemicals they are using to DOGGR, but some information would remain publicly inaccessible trade secrets. The bill would allow health professionals to obtain information about the chemicals used, but they would be bound by confidentiality rules. Those provisions led the Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, which backed the general principle of regulating fracking, to oppose the legislation.
"While it does address some of the environmental issues, it completely shortcuts and sidetracks the issue of public health," Angela Mezaros, the organization's general counsel, testified at Tuesday's hearing.
The bill would also direct the California Natural Resources Agency to choose someone to conduct an environmental impact report. If that study is not completed by Jan. 1, 2015, DOGGR would be prohibited from issuing permits, effectively imposing a statewide moratorium on fracking. Energy industry representatives said fracking opponents could use that deadline as a cudgel, dragging out the study in an effort to curb fracking.
"I think unfortunately sometimes we're looking for studies to match what our predisposed" beliefs are," said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association.
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.