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April 09, 2013

Fracking California is a Disaster Waiting to Happen

Fracking-rigPhoto by Shane Davis, Rocky Mountain Chapter Sierra Club

By Kathryn Phillips, Director,Sierra Club California

Sometimes fact is so much stranger than anything even the best novelist could write.

Take California, which sits atop a 1,700-square-mile oil shale deposit that is threatened to be accessed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is an ugly, largely unregulated process that forces massive amounts of water, sand, and an unknown cocktail of chemicals into the ground, the end result of which is to release more dirty fossil-fuel pollution into our environment.

As news of fracking's destructive impacts from states like Pennsylvania and Wyoming spreads across the country, it is no wonder Californians have grown worried about what might happen in our own backyard, and are demanding a moratorium to stop any new fracking from taking place.

The state already has two of the most polluted air basins in the nation—the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles region—where air pollution is responsible for more than 3,800 premature deaths and costs local economies more than $28 billion annually, according to a 2008 study by California State University, Fullerton. At least 680 communities also currently rely on polluted water due to groundwater contamination. Add fracking to that mix, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. It promises more water contamination, more air pollution, more land destruction, and will only hasten climate catastrophe. 

On the the national level, fracking for oil and gas is still largely exempt from common-sense environmental laws—seven to be exact—like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. With these loopholes in place, the industry essentially has a free ticket to frack U.S. public land without fearing any repercussions.

Up to now, protecting air and water quality has only been possible at the state and local levels, and often even that has proven to be difficult. In California, by the industry's own estimate, more than 600 oil wells have been fracked in the last decade, with virtually no oversight or monitoring by the state agency that provides well permits.

Last year in California, legislators tried to rein in the industry's irresponsible fracking practices by introducing bills that called for greater public notice and regulatory oversight. These proposals were quickly shot down by oil lobbyists, who represent one of the most powerful interest groups working in the State Capitol.

Then just two months ago, the New York Times published an article highlighting how the Monterey Shale formation-which stretches from the northern San Joaquin Valley into Los Angeles County, and west to the coast-could turn California into the nation's top oil-producing region, literally changing the Golden State's landscape overnight. The story put a national spotlight on how oil and gas companies are quickly buying up leases on federal land so they can expand oil fracking in California, just as they are doing for natural gas in Pennsylvania.

Responding to increased public concerns, California legislators sprang into action in March to establish public protections. They introduced ten bills to address the environmental and public health effects of fracking. Three of those bills call for a moratorium on any new fracking projects until it can be proven that our air, water, public health, and environment will not be harmed.

While these bills move through the legislative process, Sierra Club California and our 150,000 activist members will work to ensure that our policymakers are making decisions based on people, not profits. Protecting our public health and the environment is essential, especially since we don't know the potential health risks associated with fracking.

Californians are among the most environmentally conscious citizens in the nation. We want clean water, clean air, and solid decreases in greenhouse gas emissions now. We want a moratorium to stop any new fracking and we want our legislature to do the right thing to protect our environment and our health.

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