The Fracas Over Fracking

If we are to candidly and comprehensively address climate change -- which I believe is the true crisis of our time -- we must find new ways to generate energy and fuel.
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I have been talking a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline recently, and I am happy to say that the momentum has really shifted over the past few months, and the wind is at our back. That's what happens when logic's on your side! Still, winning on the pipeline issue -- and we're a million miles from taking that for granted -- isn't the only topic on our minds here at NGCA.

As in much of the nation, leaders in my home state of California have been engaged in a full-throated fracas about fracking.

Recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed the state's first-ever regulations on hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") into law. The fracking bill was the cause of contentious hand-wringing and finger-pointing by both sides of the fight.

Looming large over the fight was the prospect of 15 billion barrels of oil contained in the complex geology of the Monterey Shale, intensifying the fracking debate -- especially since California is the only oil-producing state in the country that subsidizes oil companies by allowing them to harvest oil without paying any royalties to our state or its people.

All of the current political sound and fury around fracking misses a fundamental point: fracking, acidizing, and every other oil and gas extraction technique is happening on a grossly-uneven playing field.

The oil industry has benefited from more than a century of tax breaks and other subsidies, adding up to billions of dollars per year in public support for one of the most profitable industries in America. The natural gas industry is exempt from at least half of the major federal environmental laws and, in many states, has no additional regulation. And, unlike every other oil-producing state in America, California allows oil companies to take our resources from our state and sell it on the open market without paying a single dollar in oil extraction taxes -- thereby shouldering the people of California with a higher tax burden.

Even after California closes its oil-extraction fiscal loophole -- and I believe that day is coming -- we still need to address the larger issue of environmental safety and public health. Because of our current near-total lack of regulation and transparency, we still do not fully understand the actual environmental, seismic, and health impacts of new extraction techniques.

If we are to candidly and comprehensively address climate change -- which I believe is the true crisis of our time -- we must find new ways to generate energy and fuel. On the path to a low-carbon, clean-energy future, we need cleaner, non-intermittent sources of power that will allow us to keep the lights on when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining.

Some people argue that fracking and related techniques can help provide a bridge to a sustainable energy future.

But, before we even have such a discussion about fracking serving as a bridge to a sustainable energy future, we must be assured -- above all else -- that:

1) the oil and gas industry is paying their fair share of taxes, royalties, and impact fees for the natural resources they are already taking; and

2) the techniques in question can be performed safely, in each specific geologic location, supported by independent science and proven beyond a realistic doubt.

As it stands now, neither condition has been met. The oil and gas industry is not paying its fair share, and is not close to demonstrating that fracking can be done safely here in California.

Ultimately, the burden of proof is on the industry, including demonstrating that it is not contaminating our increasingly scarce water supplies.

Only when the oil and gas industry has taken full account of, and responsibility for, the impacts of exploring for and extracting fossil fuels can we engage in a serious and worthy evaluation of whether fracking can indeed provide a bridge to a sustainable energy future.

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