We opposed SB 4 from the beginning for two reasons: First, we believe that regulating this inherently dangerous and counterproductive practice is not the way forward; and second, the bill originally included provisions that allowed companies to hide information about the chemicals being used by calling that information a “trade secret,” leading to a doctor gag rule that prohibited doctors from discussing the health impacts from chemicals used in well stimulations.
Last week, the bill was amended to remove the doctor gag rule and to limit the ability to hide information about chemicals from the public. We’ll be watching it very closely as we enter the last week of the legislative session to do all we can to limit negative changes to the language. Now we have a new fight. Senator Pavely made amendments on Friday that appear to exempt fracking from full environmental review through the CEQA process, which we cannot support.
Even as we focus our attention on the politics in Sacramento, we cannot afford to lose sight of the larger public health and energy policy issues at stake. Increasing our ability to extract more oil and gas just at the moment that we are seeking to curtail the burning of fossil fuels is deeply irresponsible policy. And, frankly, disclosure of the breathtaking amount and toxicity of the chemicals used to extract oil in our communities does nothing to make it less irresponsible.
In Los Angeles County, the 11 weeks between June 4th and August 25th saw 286 oil wells and 1 gas well drilled, completed, or reworked. Fifty one percent of those—147—reported being near a residence. Also, a handful of these sites are near a preschool, school or hospital. And 140 of the wells, nearly 50% were “acidized” while only 1 was fracked[i]. Every single one of these sites is deeply embedded in the urban fabric—after all, Los Angeles County is the third most densely populated County in the state (San Francisco is first, and Orange is second). Contrary to what the oil lobby says, oil extraction is not just in oil fields in isolated portions of Kern County or on the outskirts of rural communities. Even if it were, that’s not the future of oil extraction now that fracking and acidization have been perfected for wide-scale use.
At its core, Sacramento is saying the way forward is simply to notify people about the oil wells being fracked or acidized in their community. Here’s an example, using data from a real notice filed in Los Angeles County, of just what that means: Families in South Los Angeles would receive notification that 3 wells as close as 85 feet from their homes are being “acidized.” This legislation would permit and disclose that 24,000 pounds of chemicals, including about 9 tons of the highly toxic and flammable hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid, and half a ton of a product containing methanol, a known air toxic, are being pumped into the ground basically right outside their door.
Regulating fracking and acidizing wells this way would also mean that the State’s policy is to hope that none of these chemicals escape at any time during their life cycle because if they do, the impacts can be significant from explosion, to burning eyes, to respiratory problems, to cancer, to harming reproductive health. Once the oil is extracted, it will be transported, refined and eventually burned exposing more people to more pollution–as well as the occasional truck crash on the freeway. And, by extension, permitting and disclosing fracking means that the State’s policy is to encourage burning fossil fuels increasing emissions of particulate matter, ozone precursors, and air toxics that cause problems like asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, autism, cancer, and death. Finally, by extension, the State’s policy would increase emergency room visits, health care costs, and lost work and school days by engaging in increasingly extreme techniques to get at carbon stored underground so that we can recklessly burn it and release it into our air.
By simply permitting and disclosing oil extraction and chemical use in our communities, California will be facilitating and expanding our fossil fuel status quo. Responsible policy would be to stop this harmful and reckless activity by banning fracking and other non-conventional oil extraction because—from a health perspective–the facts demand it. The risks to community and worker health, as well as the ecosystems and the planet, are plainly too high. Permits and disclosure will not protect a single child from asthma, or a worker or family from chemical exposure. Nor do permits and disclosure help us address the climate crisis. And once the harm has occurred, it can’t be undone. We must prevent what we cannot cure.
What you can do
Tell Governor Brown and Senator Pavley that we must stop fracking and protect our health. Click here to send your message.
Contact Angela Johnson Meszaros at PSR-LA to discover other opportunities for engaging in our efforts to ensure that fracking and non-conventional oil extraction do not threaten public health. Angela can be reached via e-mail or phone at 213-689-9170.
[i] South Coast Air Quality Management District Rule 1148.2 Public Information Portal. http://xappprod.aqmd.gov/r1148pubaccessportal/. Accessed on August 26th.