Fracking is still getting lots of attention and airplay in California, but the real story is virtually ignored: the success of last year's landmark legislation to regulate oil and gas drilling. The bill, SB 4, took a quiet yet important step forward last week when state regulators released the latest version - which is likely to be final - of new rules to govern the industry.
The 32-page document is the result of a long process of compromise between environmentalists and the oil industry, brokered by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature's climate policy maven, Sen. Fran Pavley.
This process has been dry and boring. It hasn't drawn protesters to the barricades or earned environmental groups an avalanche of donations. Nor does it fit Republicans' cartoonish stereotyping of environmental regulations as onerous and bad for business. But this sort of compromise may be just what California needs.
The rule-making process has included nearly 200,000 public comments submitted to the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) over the past 10 months. Commenting will close Oct. 24, with the permanent version of the rule going into effect July 1 of next year.
While some left-leaning environmental groups have remained bitterly opposed to the regulatory process on the grounds that it legitimates fracking and the overall oil and gas industry, others have rolled up their sleeves and negotiated the thorny details.
So what's the upshot of all this? As originally billed, California will have the nation's toughest regulations on fracking and other stimulation methods such as acidizing, including testing, monitoring, public notice and permitting. Here are a few highlights of the near-final regulations:
Water. The rules significantly strengthen the monitoring of groundwater around new wells. The State Water Resources Control Board is given new powers to regulate drilling and production, and neighbors of drilling sites are given 20 days from notification of the project to request water quality testing before fracking or other stimulation methods begin. The new powers have led to muscular enforcement action, such as when DOGGR shut 11 Kern County injection wells in July. A Sept. 15 letter from the Board to the federal EPA is worth reading, if only to see the sort of plodding (aka boring) yet valuable investigative work that has been made possible by SB 4. Additional water-related reforms were included in Pavley's follow-up bill this year, SB 1281, which requires the recycling of produced water in oilfields.
Disclosure. Oil and gas firms are required to disclose all chemicals even if they claim trade secrets. In a compromise, however, companies can hide some sensitive information from public view and disclose it only to DOGGR. In another concession to industry, operators are allowed to submit aggregated information on their use of acid during routine well maintenance.
Earthquakes. Companies using fracking or acidizing must report earthquakes of 2.7 magnitude or greater occurring near their operations.
Streamlining. Companies won several time-saving changes. They will be allowed "single-project authorization," or the grouping of multiple well stimulation treatments under one permit, and they can apply for fracking and water permits simultaneously rather than requiring the water permit to be issued beforehand.
A variety of other changes were made, too many to discuss here. From an environmental perspective, the net result has been markedly stronger regulations. And for industry, the results are in the numbers. According to EnergyWire last week:
Since interim fracking rules went into place in January, DOGGR has received 991 stimulation notices and 391 post-well stimulation reports, officials said. They said they have not received many requests for groundwater monitoring so far, likely because most of the stimulated wells are on the west side of Kern County, which is sparsely populated.
The environment is being protected, oil is still being pumped. Success.
Last but not least - on the federal level, two other initiatives are critically important and have the potential for a win-win solution for both treehuggers and industry.
- As columnist Joe Nocera wrote in last week's New York Times, the E.P.A. and White House are in the process of deciding on a new federal rule on methane emissions from oil and gas drilling. As Nocera says, "If the administration takes the right course, methane emissions could likely be reduced by 40 percent or 50 percent over the next five years."
- The Interior Department and White House are in the final moments of rule-making on environmental, safety, and public health standards for fracking activities on public lands. Pro-environment Democratic lawmakers recently sent a letter pressing for tough standards, while industry leaders met in the White House to lobby for looser rules. Some sort of compromise is inevitable.