County Commission Hesitant to Endorse Fracking Ban

by Leslie Layton

Butte County planning commissioners debated last week an ordinance to ban fracking, finally tabling a measure they said might be purely symbolic.

And if an ordinance that would ban fracking in Butte County is a symbolic gesture — as some argue — the importance of the symbolism to the state’s oil-and-gas industry was clear at the Oct. 23 meeting. The Commission faced upfront industry lobbying from statewide groups opposed to a local ban.

After hearing testimony from more than 30 people, the Commission voted 4-0 to table the matter until its Dec. 11 meeting. (Commissioner Harrel Wilson was absent.) Perhaps more telling, the commissioners also voted 4-0 to pare down the draft ordinance by about 95 percent in order to consider an abbreviated version that would only ban the disposal of fracking by-products in Butte County.

The Board of Supervisors can still act to adopt or reject the original ordinance — which was written by county attorneys during the past six months — but the Planning Commission must first make a recommendation.

“I don’t know why we’re in such a hurry to do this,” said Commissioner Mary Kennedy, noting that a ban in Butte County, where there’s no hydraulic fracturing going on, is largely “symbolic.”

The ordinance under consideration came about after the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in April in favor of a ban on fracking or new well-stimulation methods in Butte County. Earlier in the year, the Butte County Water Commission had recommended a zoning amendment that would require a conditional-use permit for fracking.

Ban proponents note the numerous instances of groundwater contamination in areas where fracking has been underway.

“When they destroy your water, it’s forever,” Water Commission member John Scott told the Planning Commission.

Some citizens and county officials were concerned last spring that as technology evolves, a drilling company might try new methods to extract gas deposits that would put the Tuscan Aquifer at risk. There was also growing concern about whether companies that are fracking in areas near Butte County would use any of the 200 abandoned gas wells here to dispose of toxic wastewater.

Chico State geology professor Todd Greene, who opened the Planning Commission meeting by giving a fact-based PowerPoint presentation on fracking, indicated that wastewater may in fact be the bigger worry. The process of fracturing rock formations deep in the Earth to extract oil and gas deposits produces what’s called “flowback” — the mix of brine and fracking fluids that may contain radioactive matter.

“Wastewater is what has the potential for impacts to water resources,” Greene said. “What do you do with what is usually a toxic mix?”

Wastewater is usually trucked for disposal in an injection well elsewhere or treated and reused in some way. In comments after the meeting, Greene reiterated his belief that it’s “very unlikely” that what he calls “modern fracking” — involving the use of some chemicals that aren’t yet well-regulated and horizontal drilling technique — will happen in Butte County.

But the state oil and gas industry opposes restrictive legislation, even in counties where fracking would seem to be a remote possibility.

Dave Quast, the California field director for Energy In-Depth, the public-outreach program run by the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), urged the Planning Commission to reject the ordinance. Quast said the process of fracking is already “heavily-regulated” to ensure safety.

“The ordinance would be a symbolic gesture at best,” Quast said.

Prior to the meeting, the panel received correspondence opposing the ban from a Los Angeles law firm representing the political action committee (PAC) Californians for Energy Independence that is funded by oil, gas and other kinds of energy companies.

That PAC received more than $7.7 million in contributions between May 5 and Oct. 16 of this year. For example, according to the Secretary of State’s campaign finance disclosure reports, Occidental Petroleum donated $2 million on Aug. 21, Aera Energy donated more than $2 million on July 11, and Chevron donated $1.2 million on June 10.

Fracking bans are in place elsewhere in the country, including Santa Cruz County. Fracking opponents have placed ban ordinances on the ballots for the upcoming election in San Benito and Santa Barbara counties.

A citizen campaign run by the group Frack-Free Butte County has been successful in getting a 2016 ballot initiative. Planning Commissioner Alan White wondered whether there should be a “sunset provision” that would expire any ordinance passed now before a 2016 referendum.

But Frack-Free Butte County’s Joni Stellar said that a sunset provision might be a big mistake. The county’s ordinance is “far more detailed” as it’s presently written than is the citizens’ ordinance, she said.

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