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Lawmakers urge Jerry Brown to halt all fracking

Nine state lawmakers, including a few from the Bay Area, have signed a letter urging Gov. Jerry Brown to impose a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and gas, the process commonly called “fracking.”

Marc Levine“The risks are simply too great to allow fracking to continue,” Assemblyman Marc Levine, who authored the letter, told reporters on a conference call this morning.

The technique demonstrably hurts air and water quality, might influence seismic activity, and furthers a dependence on fossil fuel that contributes to climate change, said Levine, D-San Rafael, and so it must be suspended “until we have all the data to address the immediate and long-term dangers.”

Signing Levine’s letter were Assemblymembers Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara; Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica; Adrin Nazarian, D-Van Nuys; Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, as well as state Senators Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa; Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville; and Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

Levine, who announced the letter in November, teamed up with CREDO, an activist group which had thousands of members sign petitions and make phone calls urging their lawmakers to sign the letter. Levine and CREDO delivered the letter and held their news conference during this final week of a public comment period on Brown’s proposed fracking regulations, which they say would allow a massive expansion of fracking in California.

CREDO campaign manager Zack Malitz called fracking “one of the greatest environmental struggles to face Califonians in a generation,” and said Brown has proposed “dangerously weak regulations that would only encourage more fracking” despite “massive public opposition.”

“His legacy as an environmental leader is on the line,” Malitz said. “Californians will hold him responsible for putting oil-industry profits ahead of our health and the climate.”

Several bills proposing a moratorium on fracking failed to get enough votes to advance in the Legislature last year. The Legislature did pass SB 4 by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabassas, which Brown signed into law in September; that bill requires oil companies to go through a permit process, disclose chemical uses, do groundwater tests and send notices to neighboring landowners about their intent to drill.

Brown generally has pursued energy policy that supports increased oil production while expanding California’s goal of producing at least a third of its electricity from renewable sources (such as wind or solar energy) by 2020.

UPDATE @ 12:32 P.M.: This just in from Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman: “After extensive debate, the Legislature – including the authors of this letter – voted to enact SB 4, which became effective just days ago. Pursuant to this bill, the regulatory process has begun and we encourage these legislators and other interested citizens to actively participate.”

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Oil-extraction tax measure dies, but will return

A student-led campaign to put an oil-extraction tax ballot measure before California voters has failed – and is starting all over again with renewed vigor.

Monday was the signature-gathering deadline for the “California Modernization and Economic Development Act,” a measure conceived at UC-Berkeley that would’ve imposed a 9.5 percent tax on oil and natural gas extracted in the state. Petition circulation began April 25, but the proponents couldn’t hit their 504,760-signature mark.

But Californians for Responsible Economic Development, the student-led group that drafted the initiative, plans to resubmit a revised measure.

California oil wells“This summer has been busy for the CMED team,” said Aaron Thule, the campaign’s grassroots coordinator. “After a lot of hard work, we have built a signature gathering coalition for fall and winter that will be ready to activate and qualify this initiative come November.”

The tax would’ve raised an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year. In its first decade, 60 percent of its revenue would’ve been split equally among K-12 education, community colleges, the California State University system and the University of California system; 22 percent would’ve gone to clean-energy projects and research; 15 percent would’ve gone to counties for infrastructure and public health and safety services; and 3 percent would’ve gone to state parks. After the first decade, 80 percent would’ve gone to education, 15 percent to counties and 5 percent to state parks.

The revised initiative will have a sliding scale tax of 2 percent to 8 percent, which the proponents say will protect small business owners and jobs while still bringing in about $1 billion per year.

The revised initiative also will change the revenue allocation: 50 percent would be put in a special 30-year endowment fund for education, which after three years would start paying out equally to K-12, community colleges, CSU and UC. The proponents predict that after 30 years of collecting interest, it would bring in as much as $3.5 billion per year for education.

Another 25 percent would provide families and businesses with subsidies for switching to cleaner, cheaper energy, and the final 25 percent would be put toward rolling back the gas tax increase enacted last July, to make gas more affordable for working-class Californians, the proponents say.

Working to qualify the measure by early spring will be the University of California Student Association, groups at San Francisco State University, Sonoma State University, CSU Bakersfield and several community colleges. California College Democrats and California Young Democrats, both of which have endorsed an extraction tax for education and clean energy, are also lending support.

“It’s hard to believe that California is the only state that practically gives away our energy – especially when, as a state, our schools and colleges continue to struggle and we have yet to provide adequate funding to meet our own renewable energy standards,” College Democrats President Erik Taylor said.

The UCSA, representing hundreds of thousands of UC students, plans to organize across several campuses. “Affordability and funding are critical issues at the UC and Prop 30 simply is not the solution in itself that we need,” UCSA President Kareem Aref. “Our campaigns for this year are designed to ensure a stable and long term funding stream for the UC.”

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Dianne Feinstein supports fracking regulation bill

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday endorsed a controversial state bill that would regulate but allow “fracking” and another new means of extracting oil and gas.

“The discovery that fracking and acidization of oil and gas formations could produce approximately 23.9 billion barrels of petroleum in the continental United States — 64 percent of which is estimated to lie within the Monterey Shale formation underlying portions of Central and Southern California — points to the need for action to ensure protection of the state’s natural resources,” said Feinstein, D-Calif.

SB 4 by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabasas, would require the state Secretary of Natural Resources to work with state and regional water boards and the state air board to create regulations governing “well stimulation” treatments, which includes hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “fracking” – and acidization.

The bill also would require permits for all well-stimulation treatments, disclosure of the fluids used in such procedures, advance notification of neighbors near where such methods will be used, and more.

Opponents of the bill say the only way to protect California from fracking’s environmental threats is to halt it entirely with a moratorium. SB 4 now awaits an Assembly floor vote.

“I strongly support Senator Pavley’s legislation and urge the legislature to pass the bill and Governor Brown to sign it,” Feinstein said. “Unless the potential dangers of fracking are addressed, we face the possibility of catastrophic consequences to the state’s environment and precious groundwater.”

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Fracking battle heats up for session’s final weeks

The debate over fracking is reaching a fever pitch in Sacramento, as activists urge a moratorium in the final weeks of this legislative session.

A coalition of more than 100 environmental, health and liberal groups on Wednesday released an open letter urging Gov. Jerry Brown to impose such a ban and blasting SB 4, a pending bill that would allow some fracking to go forward.

“This is a do-or-die moment in the fight against fracking in California,” CREDO political director Becky Bond said in a conference call with reporters, adding that although state Sen. Fran Pavley – SB 4’s author – has been a reliable ally to environmentalists in the past, “it’s appalling that this bill is the best the Legislature has to offer Californians.”

“We know that there’s no safe way to frack,” she said. “Anything less than a moratorium is reckless and unacceptable.”

But the only moratorium bill that has made it to a floor vote this year – AB 1323 by Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Culver City – was defeated in a 24-37 Assembly vote in May.

California must act now, Pavley said by email later Wednesday.

“Companies are fracking and acidizing wells in California now, and we can’t afford to wait for another attempt at a moratorium to take action,” she said. “Strict regulations are our best tool right now to protect the public and the environment and hold the industry and regulators accountable.”

Pavley’s bill would establish a regulatory program for hydraulic fracturing and acid-injection methods of extracting oil and gas, including a study, development of regulations, a permitting process, and public notification and disclosure.

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Yet opponents say SB 4 “does nothing to make fracking any less dangerous,” per Adam Scow, California campaigns director for Food & Water Watch.

Victoria Kaplan, a campaign director with MoveOn.org, told reporters that public opinion against fracking is building steadily in California. “The more people learn about fracking, the more they hate it – that’s what we’re seeing this summer.”

Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said fracking not only “endangers the air we breathe and the water we drink,” but also would set back California’s efforts to roll back climate change. Not only does the fracking process release methane – a potent greenhouse gas – but burning the oil that it produces from the Monterey Shale will generate more than 6.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, she said.

SB 4 is now pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Activists plan to deliver more than 9,000 petition signatures Thursday to committee chairman Mike Gatto’s and Assembly Speaker John Pérez‘s offices, urging them to add an immediate moratorium on fracking to SB 4.

This is only the latest such petition: MoveOn.org says more than 120,000 people have signed various petitions to ban fracking in California.

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Brown, Feinstein seek action on gas prices

Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein today pushed for action and answers on California’s skyrocketing gas prices.

Brown directed the California Air Resources Board to take emergency steps to increase the state’s gasoline supply and bring down fuel prices by immediately taking “whatever steps are necessary” to let oil refineries to make an early transition to winter-blend gasoline, which typically isn’t sold until after October 31.

“Gas prices in the state have set new record highs, and gas is completely unavailable at some stations in southern California,” Brown wrote to CARB chairwoman Mary Nichols. “If this situation continues, it may cause unacceptable price impacts for consumers and small businesses, significant economic disruption, and serious harm to public safety and welfare.”

Winter-blend gasoline evaporates more quickly than the gas sold in summer months, which is better for air quality during the smog season. Allowing an early transition could increase California’s fuel supply by up to an estimated 8 to 10 percent with only negligible air quality impacts, Brown said.

Gas prices in California have skyrocketed over the past week due to a tightening of fuel supplies caused in part by shutdowns at Tesoro and Exxon refineries. The Exxon refinery came back online Friday and Tesoro is scheduled to resume production early next week.

Feinstein, meanwhile, sent a second letter to Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz – she sent the first in late August – asking for an immediate investigation of the price spike:

First, I request that the FTC immediately initiate an investigation to determine if the price spike in Southern California this week results from an illegal short squeeze. A Reuters investigation cites industry sources who believe that the 97-cent price spike in CARBOB gasoline this past week “has many of the hallmarks of a classic short squeeze.” Multiple trade sources say Tesoro Corporation was caught short on supply. In the severely concentrated Los Angeles gasoline market, the few sellers were reportedly able to squeeze Tesoro either through collusion or use of market power. An FTC investigation is likely the only way to determine whether this reported squeeze took place.

Publically available data appears to confirm that market fundamentals are not to blame for rising gas prices in California. Despite a pipeline and refinery shut down, gasoline production in the state last week was almost as high as a year ago, and stockpiles of gasoline and blending components combined were equal to this time last year, state data show.

Second, I ask that the FTC immediately seek data sharing agreements that will allow it to monitor gasoline and oil markets actively and effectively. Data on prices, trading activity, refinery output, demand, stocks, and other information are vital to determine if trading activities reflect fraud, manipulation, or other malicious trading practices. While much of this data is currently collected, but not released, by the CFTC, the Energy Information Administration, the California Energy Commission, and private sources, the FTC does not collect, compile, or analyze this information in any organized or ongoing way. I believe that obtaining relevant data is a basic prerequisite of effective consumer protection.

Third, I request that the FTC establish a permanent gasoline and oil market oversight unit modeled on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Division of Energy Market Analytics and Surveillance. As you know, FERC’s anti-manipulation authority in natural gas and electricity markets mirrors the FTC oil market authority nearly word for word. With its authority, FERC has built an entire division of market monitoring professionals who oversee trading in real time to protect consumers from malicious trading practices. I fail to understand why the FTC has not yet set up its own unit to oversee oil markets.

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Lawmaker touts ‘fracking’ disclosure bill

Oil and gas producers engaged in hydraulic fracturing must be required to disclose the chemicals they’re pumping into the ground, an East Bay lawmaker said today.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, held a news conference at the State Capitol just before his AB 591 was taken up by the state Senate Appropriations Committee, which will decide next week whether to let the bill advance.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” (not to be confused with “frakking”), is a process in which a highly-pressurized mix of water, sand and toxic chemicals is injected underground to crack rock formations and tap into petroleum deposits. Some fear this can contaminate water supplies. Wieckowski’s bill would ensure that the state Conservation Department’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources gathers information on the chemicals used, and on the volume and source of water used in this process.

“Roughly 50,000 Californians have signed on-line petitions expressing their support for passing AB 591 and protecting our state’s environment,” hei said today. “They all agree with us that it is time to pull back the curtain and shed more light on fracking.”

With Wieckowski at today’s news conference were Assembly Assistant Majority Leader Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa; Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento; and representatives from the Environmental Working Group, California League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.