A new bill authored by two State Senators that could slow new fracking, steaming and other oil extraction practices will be heard for the first time in the state legislature next month.
Senate Bill 467, the “End Fracking and Harmful Drilling Act,” is authored by Sens. Monique Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco. The bill will be heard by the Senate in mid-April after it was first introduced in February.
The legislation calls for the state to prohibit the issuance of new or renewed permits for specific extraction methods including fracking, cyclic steaming and acid well stimulation treatments starting in January 2022. Then, over the next five years, the bill aims to outright ban these practices state-wide by January 2027.
In addition, the bill calls for the state to require a 2,500 foot buffer between oil extraction sites and homes, hospitals, schools and other zones where the population’s proximity and safety is a concern.
In an interview with the News-Press, Sen. Limón said next month’s hearing will be the first time in 14 years that the state legislature will discuss fracking. While she recognizes that this bill contains a number of difficult elements, she said her ultimate goal is to champion a conversation about fracking and its environmental impact moving forward.
“I want to be clear that this is a very difficult lift,” Sen Limón said. “That’s what we call them in the legislature. This is a heavy lift, meaning that it’s going to be hard and there’s no guarantee. While I think polling data (shows) that in the state of California there is a lot of interest from voters to move forward to green energy, to sustainable energy, to reduce fossil fuel production in our state and the health impacts it might have, this is still a very very difficult bill.”
Sen. Limón said without a bill, there can be no legislative review, which is why she is hoping the bill can make its way through committees in order to spark conversation. The bill is also in its early stages, she said, which means it must work its way through at least six committees for approval before reaching Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk in September at the earliest.
“First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that whether you’re in support or against this bill, if there’s not a legislative vehicle, there’s not a legislative review,” Sen. Limón said. “So I think we need to, in this state, have a conversation about where we want energy and oil production to be … If there’s not a bill, there’s not a conversation.”
In Santa Barbara County, the most common form of oil extraction is low-pressure cyclic steaming. This practice injects steam deep underground, which heats up the oil to make it easier to flow to the surface. In North County, this drilling occurs beneath the Santa Maria Aquaphor, which is the primary source of drinking water for many in the county.
Among officials and community members, SB 467 nods toward an issue that has created a stark divide in the public. While environmentalists condemn the drilling practices used in the North County, opponents argue that a ban would trigger negative effects for the economy.
According to Katie Davis, chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, cyclic steaming releases high carbon-emissions into the environment, which can lead to water contamination, air pollution, risks of oil spills and increases fire hazards.
For Ms. Davis and other environmental advocates, this bill is a positive step in alignment with the state’s goals to move towards alternative forms of energy in the next two decades. Though opponents are raising concerns over the economic impact, Ms. Davis said it is possible to transition to energy-efficient practices, maintain jobs and have a booming economy.
“The answer is really to reduce (oil) consumption, and that’s the direction we’re going,” Ms. Davis told the News-Press. “And gosh, we better, because if we don’t meet our climate goals, we’re going to create an unlivable environment, and that’s not a future we want to create.”
She later added, “We can have a strong economy, strong job prospects and also transition away from the most dangerous forms of oil production. These are not mutually exclusive at all.”
Opponents of the bill argue that the environmental impacts of cyclic steaming may be overstated. Andy Caldwell, the founder of the watchdog group Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, said fracking is no longer a common practice in the Central Coast and other methods have proven safe and successful.
“First of all, we’ve been drilling here for over 100 years and they’ve used steaming for at least 40 to 60 years,” Mr. Caldwell told the News-Press. “If there had been a problem with the drilling, it would have happened a long time ago before we had the sensors and the safeguards that we have today. The bottom line is that this industry has improved over time and has not become more dangerous.”
Mr. Caldwell, who is also a News-Press columnist, also pointed to Santa Barbara County’s defeat of a measure that called for an end to fracking in 2014. Measure P was listed on a 2014 ballot as a “Fracking Ban Initiative,” and was defeated by a vote of “no” by 61% of voters.
When asked about the defeat of Measure P in 2014, Sen. Limón said there were a number of factors at play. She noted that the voter turnout in 2014 was far less than the total number of voters who turned out in 2020, and also pointed to differences in advertising totals. In 2014, the opposition efforts spent $7.8 million in advertising, while proponents of Measure P spent $284,000.
Other opponents to the bill argue it will hurt oil industry workers at a time when the unemployment rate skyrocketed due to the pandemic and force the state to import greater amounts of foreign oil.
“An energy shutdown like SB 467 will hurt Santa Barbara’s economy and roll back the state’s environmental leadership,” Rock Zierman, the California Independent Petroleum Association CEO, said in a statement. “Santa Barbara County’s unemployment rate is 67% higher than it was a year ago and this would make even more local workers jobless at a time when the county has less tax revenue for safety net programs. Local oil and natural gas companies also pay millions of dollars each year that are reinvested in programs to fund the state’s aggressive climate goals.”
He added that the bill will cause greater reliance on “environmentally inferior foreign oil” that is produced without taking stock of environmental policies.
“It’s disappointing that local lawmakers want to import more oil from Saudi Arabia than put Santa Barbara County residents to work making our own energy,” Mr. Zierman said in the statement. “California’s energy shut down policies over the last decade have only forced us to meet our state’s vast demand with more imports and SB 467 only accelerates our energy insecurity.”
The bill even caused a divide in the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, where officials voted 3-2 in favor of sending a letter of support for this bill during last week’s meeting. Fifth District supervisor Steve Lavagnino and 4th District supervisor and Chair Bob Nelson voted “no” the measure, citing concerns over the potential loss of drilling jobs among their constituents.
In a statement to the News-Press, 3rd District supervisor and Vice Chair Joan Hartmann explained that the energy industry is shifting, and those employed in the energy business now will not lose their careers.
“Clean energy jobs pay more than the median income and are less volatile and less dangerous than jobs in the oil industry and are the future,” Supervisor Hartmann said in the statement. She pointed to the development of wind projects in Lompoc and Vandenberg Air Force Base as evidence that “renewable energy represents the future in energy jobs.”