California Forum

Viewpoints: Fracking during the drought is destructive and irresponsible

You cannot read the news anywhere in the country – let alone here in California – without being reminded that we face what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in centuries. Even with recent showers, water supplies in the northern and central parts of the state remain dangerously short.

The State Water Project recently announced that it would be cutting off water deliveries for the first time in its 54-year history. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency and implored Californians to conserve water. But his embrace of water-intensive hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, for oil sets exactly the wrong example.

Scientists have long warned that climate change will mean brutal droughts in the Southwest. In his State of the State address, Brown alluded to climate change, saying we should “take this drought as a warning of things to come.” In speech after speech, the governor says climate change is the single greatest challenge we face, yet he has yet to take meaningful action to reduce the pollution that causes climate change – agreements Brown has signed with other states and countries have made great ceremony but are not binding.

Last fall Brown signed Senate Bill 4, giving permission to the oil-and-gas industry to use fracking in California. This could ultimately dump about 7.7 billion more metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, destabilizing our climate further and exacerbating the droughts, the sea-level rise and the other costly climate impacts we face. The governor evidently knows this, but won’t stand up to the industry.

Fracking is a triple threat to California’s water. Not only does it exacerbate the climate crisis, it requires mixing vast amounts of water with harmful chemicals, and it puts our vital aquifers at risk of contamination for generations. Last week, the green investment group Ceres released a report that found that 96 percent of fracking wells in California were drilled in regions under high or extremely high water stress.

In 2008, the oil industry in Kern County injected more than 1.3 billion barrels (54.6 billion gallons or 165,000 acre-feet) of water and steam to produce just 162 million barrels of oil. In previous droughts, when residents and farmers have had to reduce consumption, the oil industry in Kern County has enjoyed a steady supply of water, much of it from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the California Aqueduct.

Even though Kern County won’t be receiving new allocations of water from the State Water Project, Kern County residents can expect that the oil industry will still take a large share of any available water from the Kern River or from the Kern Water Bank. The West Kern Water District, for example, allocates about 40 percent of its water to oil companies.

Brown uses climate change and the impact it is having on California water resources to justify his push for billions of dollars in new water infrastructure that would divert more Northern California water to the south. But his BDCP twin-tunnels project only doubles down on the policies that severely mismanage our state’s water supply. This project would take a heavy environmental toll on California’s rivers and cost California taxpayers up to $67 billion.

Brown likes to talk about bold and visionary action, but his current water and energy policies are destructive and irresponsible. We need our governor to demonstrate some real courage and prohibit fracking and other extreme extraction techniques and drop his plan to build the massive twin tunnels to divert the Sacramento River. This current drought will define the governor’s legacy as a bold leader or a myopic politician. And it is his actions not his words that will reverberate far into California’s future.