New York: No Fracking Model for California

*NOTE: A slightly different version of this analysis recently appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Last month, New York’s Department of Health ended years of indecision when its Commissioner announced that the state would continue its ban on hydraulic fracturing. New York based its decision on a strange standard that puts those in favor of environmentally responsible development, jobs and economic activity in the position of having to prove a negative.

Though the state’s Department of Health couldn’t find evidence that fracking is harmful or causes the environmental ills claimed by “ban fracking” activists, it nevertheless decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to ensure that the 65 year-old, well-understood process was safe. How to further prove that something is safe, in the face of 65 years of experience and many scientific studies, was not explained.

This strange circumstance has given a glimmer of hope to California’s “ban fracking” activists, who cling to the theory that this action by New York will be palatable here, where fracking has been happening for many decades without the negative impacts imagined by anti-industry activists. California regulators have consistently confirmed the fundamental safety of the practice. The Governor has also recognized that a ban or moratorium is not in our interest.  The heavily Democratic State Legislature has three times rejected a ban or moratorium on fracking with even a majority of Democrats refusing to support such an idea.

An example of this activist wishful thinking is an op-ed recently published in the San Jose Mercury-News by Adam Scow of Food & Water Watch (FWW) and Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The duo claimed that New York’s recent ban on fracking “puts pressure” on California to do the same.  Notably, the authors come from two of the most vocal anti-fracking activist groups.  Scow’s FWW, for example, is the group that once put out a report blaming fracking for venereal disease and domestic abuse. CBD, meanwhile, has proclaimed that “campaigning instinct” is the “core talent” of a successful environmentalist, “not science and law.” It also has a history of misrepresenting the facts around oil and gas development in California.

Thus, as one might expect, Scow and Kretzmann bring to the table no new scientific evidence to back up their claims of harm, nor do they acknowledge that New York’s Department of Health itself found no evidence linking major health problems to shale development. They also fail to note that New York went out of its way to distinguish (pp. 50-51) the Empire State from California.

What they do instead is an insult to intelligent debate. In their own words:

“[Governor] Brown has tried to have it both ways. He allows oil companies to do more drilling and fracking while touting himself as a leader in the fight against global warming. More California communities are showing him that they will not accept this contradiction, which comes at the expense of their health and quality of life.

With the governor’s legacy at stake, he must put California’s health and environment ahead of oil company profits. Like Cuomo, he should ban fracking.”

The authors go on to insult the integrity Gov. Brown, one of the leading environmentalists of the past 40 years, suggesting that his legacy will be tarnished if he doesn’t do as the activists at FWW and CBD demand. To call this accusation tone-deaf would be generous.

Second, Scow and Kretzmann make the false claim that fracking is at odds with progress combating climate change. They do this despite the fact that the International Energy Agency says that the United States leads the world in carbon emission reductions because of the shale – and fracking – revolution. This is good news, which should (and does) make serious environmentalists happy.

The Los Angeles Times, which has an unfortunate habit of ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit a particular narrative, also got into the act this week, publishing a piece by Rhea Suh, the incoming president of the anti-fracking Natural Resources Defense Council. Suh covers familiar territory:

“Fracking — the source of a large and growing share of our domestic oil — has brought the perils of the industrial oil patch to the American backyard. It threatens the water, air, ranches and farms in communities across more than 30 states where this destructive industrial practice is used to drill for oil and natural gas.”

Bizarrely, Ms. Suh, like her compatriots at CBD and FWW, cites climate change as a reason to ban fracking rather than embrace it. To oppose a fuel that has been – as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said – a “game changer” for progress on carbon emission reductions is the mark of ideological activism, not genuine environmentalism.  Simply put, they don’t consider this remarkable achievement as worthy of celebration because it flies in the face of their ongoing anti-industry campaigns.

A fracking ban is a bad idea in New York, and it’s a worse idea in California where we have significantly more energy resources. Federal and state regulators have all said repeatedly that hydraulic fracturing is safe with manageable risks, as have academic experts. A recent study of the Inglewood Oil Field near Los Angeles, the largest urban oil field in the United States, came to the same conclusion.

We are fortunate that, rather than giving in to a very vocal but scientifically challenged portion of his party’s base, Gov. Brown and Democrats in the legislature – with the support of Republicans – supported SB 4, a sweeping piece of legislation that strictly regulates fracking and other well-stimulation techniques without an outright ban. The Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources’ (DOGGR) final regulations were just released, and they will take effect on July 1.

California is a better model than New York for science-based energy policy, regardless of whether the industry or its opponents are completely happy with the end result.

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