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Fracking California: Can Jerry Brown be a climate leader if he does not oppose fracking?

Lisa Morehouse
The Kern River Oil Field in the city of Bakersfield is over 10 thousand acres large, and densely packed with pumpjacks.

When Jerry Brown stepped up to the microphone at the California Democratic Party’s convention in March, it looked like it might be an environmental love-fest. He was kicking off his campaign for a fourth term as governor of the state that is perhaps the world’s leading environmental trend-setter.

Brown began his speech touting the economic recovery California has experienced since his election in 2010. But when the governor started talking about the drought, and the need to manage the state’s water wisely, heckling erupted among the party faithful. Protestors held signs and called out, “No Fracking.” Brown fired back, declaring that California is the only state on a serious path to slash its consumption of fossil fuels.

“All you guys who like to make noise, just listen, for a moment,” he said. “Californians, including most of you, are driving over 330 million miles a year. So the challenge here is gigantic.”

The challenge, and question, for Jerry Brown, right now, is whether Jerry Brown can be a climate leader if he does not oppose fracking.

A brief history of oil production in California

California has been one of the world’s leading oil producers for more than a century. The vast majority of that oil has come from conventional drilling. But there has also been a limited amount of fracking – that’s the practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals into the earth at high pressure to drive oil to the surface.

California is also a major consumer of oil. Which is why Governor Brown believes an expansion of fracking deserves consideration.  

“The reason why I have some sympathy for oil drilling in California is because 98 percent of the people use the oil,” he said at a press conference on the budget in 2013. “And until we get them in electric cars or walking or riding their bikes, we need oil. But we’ve got to get off it. Climate change is very real.”  

Environmentalists argue, however, that the climate crisis does not permit any expansion of fracking, especially in the potentially vast deposits of the Monterey Shale formation that runs beneath the state’s Central Valley.

“There’s estimated to be between 13 and 15 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale,” says Dan Jacobson, director of policy development, research, and legislative advocacy for the non-profit organization Environment California. “Tapping into that is not consistent with the steps we need to take to keep climate under control in this country and in the world.”

Current thinking on fossil fuels and climate change

President Barack Obama recently stressed that avoiding the worst damages of climate change requires limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. Obama added that he accepted the International Energy Agency’s finding that the two degrees target means leaving two-thirds of earth’s remaining fossil fuel in the ground.

“We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” he said. “What that means is over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to basically build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy. We’re not going to turn off a switch, and suddenly we’re not going to use fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely. I very much believe in keeping that two Celsius target as a goal.”

The whole point of fracking, though, is to access oil and gas reserves that cannot be reached with conventional extraction methods – in other words, tapping the remaining two-thirds of reserves. So how does Governor Brown square his call for a “crusade to protect our climate” with a possible expansion of fracking in California?

The Governor’s dilemma

“I have to balance my strong commitment to deal with climate change and renewable energy with what could be a fabulous economic opportunity,” said Governor Brown.

The Governor and his top aides declined to be interviewed for this story. Brown’s press secretary instead directed questions to Jason Marshall, the deputy director of the state agency that regulates oil drilling, known as the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR for short. Marshall said he was not aware of the climate science requiring that two-thirds of fossil fuels remain unearthed. He stressed the Governor’s commitment to an alternative energy future.

“But we need to move towards it,” he said. “We aren’t there yet. So we need to make sure that we’ve got energy security and available resources here now even as we’re moving forward.”

California consumes about 15 billion gallons of oil a year. Thirty seven percent of it is produced within the state. Fracking, however, would not necessarily change that percentage. Oil is sold on the global market, so there’s no guarantee that oil fracked in California would actually be consumed in California. Nevertheless, the state still needs oil, and it has to come from somewhere.

“Governor Brown is in a tough position,” says Bill Allayaud, the California director of government affairs for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “He is a climate leader. I think he wants to meet state’s climate goals on reducing greenhouse gasses. He really wants to meet them. He’s committed. And yet he’s had a hard time saying no to the oil companies the last couple of years.”

Late in 2011, Governor Brown fired the previous director and deputy director of DOGGR following complaints from the oil industry that DOGGR was not granting drilling permits quickly enough. In January 2012, Occidental Petroleum, long one of California’s top oil companies, contributed $250,000 to Brown’s effort to pass Proposition 30 to increase public education budgets in California. Occidental made a second $250,000 contribution a few months later. When a Los Angeles Timesarticlelinked the firings at DOGGR to the oil industry’s permitting complaints, the governor’s office pointedly did not deny the link.

“I wasn’t here,” says DOGGR’s deputy Jason Marshall. “I can’t really comment on the reason they were asked to leave.”

The current state of fracking in California

Just after his heckling at the Democratic Convention,Governor Brown was interviewed on KQED public radio. He fielded a question about whether he could really have a meaningful climate change pact if he didn’t address fracking.

“The premise of that assertion is that climate change is primarily about fracking. And that’s the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard,” he said. “The key point here that most people have in their minds is fracking the Monterey Shale. Nobody’s doing that. At best it’s several years if it ever happens. And it can’t happen until a major and the first serious scientific study to an environmental impact analysis that I required by a law I signed two months ago is done.”

That’s California Senate Bill 4, signed last September. The bill allows fracking to continue but requires drillers to notify regulators and nearby residents in advance.  SB 4 also requires the state to monitor water quality near fracking sites and complete a study of fracking’s health, environmental, and other implications by 2015. Bill Allayaud says Brown is starting to get the point on fracking.

“He’s had activists hound him around the state about fracking,” he says. “We’ve got his ear.”

But by far the biggest development in the fracking debate did not come from Brown or his critics. It came from the federal government. Researchers fund that only 600 million barrels of oil could be tapped from the Monterey Shale formation – a 96% drop from the previous report estimating 13.7 billion barrels could be recovered.

That’s because the complex geology of the Monterey Shale requires a new kind of fracking. Instead of vertically driving wells deeper, the Monterey Shale requires horizontal fracking – in effect, turning the underground well on its side and threading it through dips and folds of rock to where the oil awaits. DOGGR’S Jason Marshall says the industry isn’t sure how to do that, yet.

“We haven’t seen a big rush of notices of intent to drill into the Monterey,” he says. “I think when the operators figure out how to produce it, when they figure out California, I think we’ll start seeing the notices.”

Bill Allayaud with the Environmental Working Group is in no hurry.

“Luckily, we have some tough geology in the state, which is slowing down the oil companies,” he says. “But I think Jerry Brown’s going to have to wrestle with this and come to a decision pretty soon.”

As Governor, Jerry Brown has the authority to halt fracking in California at any time, simply by signing an executive order. The state Senate rejected a bill to impose a moratorium on fracking in May, the latest of half a dozen such efforts to fail. That reduces the political  pressure on Brown to act before the November elections. But his legacy as one of California’s most high profile governors seems certain to rest in part on fracking, and how he balances California’s energy needs with his determination to be a climate leader of lasting impact.

Click the audio player above to hear the full story.

This story is the second in a two-part series on fracking in California. Hear part one here

Crosscurrents california