Why California is not going to ban fracking by initiative

At the enormously helpful Hydraulic Fracturing conference put on by the American Groundwater Trust, State Senator Fran Pavley concluded her talk by alluding to the possibility that if California voters feel that nothing is being done to protect their groundwater, they may take matters into their own hands and vote for an initiative to regulate or ban fracking.  

It's not a crazy idea, if you look at the polls. In June more than 70% of Californian's in a Los Angeles Times/USC poll said they supported a ban or strict regulation. Pavley's bill, SB 4, began as a moratorium two years ago, and over time morphed into a suite of comprehensive regulations (see below). 

But when I asked Andrew Grinberg, of Clean Water Action, which advocates a halt to fracking until we know it's safe, about an initiative to ban it, he pointed out that the oil and gas industry wields the mightiest of checkbooks, in the legislature, and over the airwaves.

A campaign in Ohio to tax fracking provides an excellent example of his point. A conservative Republican governor proposed a tax on fracking, to raise money for depleted state coffers, and backed by 60% of voters polled in the state. And what happened? 

When Ohio Gov. John Kasich pitched his budget a few months ago, he made a big deal about a “fracking tax” that would bring billions of dollars to the state in the coming years.

It was only fair, he said, for Ohioans to share in the bounty of the shale oil boom going on in their own backyard. Almost 60 percent of Ohioans agreed, telling pollsters they favored higher taxes on oil and gas drillers.

Despite that support, the tax never had a chance.

It was dead on arrival at Ohio’s House of Representatives a few weeks later.

If campaign contributions are any measure of influence, the oil and gas industry played an important part in the outcome.

An [Cincinnati] Enquirer analysis has found that 10 of the largest oil and natural gas companies and their main political action committee have pumped more than $660,000 into Ohio legislators’ campaign coffers since 2010.

They’ve given mostly to Republicans, who got 91.5 percent of oil and gas contributions, and most often to Republicans in Ohio’s House, who would later decide the fate of the fracking tax.

House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, alone got more than $227,000 – about $1 of every $10 he raised – from oil and gas companies, PACs and individual donors with ties to the industry.

Batchelder’s connections to the industry and opposition to the tax are so strong that Kasich joked about it last month when asked when he might try again to push a fracking tax through the House.

“Well, I think we wait for Batchelder to retire,” he said.

In California, according to local representative Das Williams,, Pavley's bill has a chance, although it's far from a slam dunk. But nobody knows if Govenor Brown will sign it, and he's not saying. 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “Why California is not going to ban fracking by initiative

  1. Why stop there? Let’s throw in the towel on climate change in general, based on the same reasoning, right?

    And yet, change sometimes happens in the face of opposition from the most powerful interests. Indeed, over sufficient time, it always does. Usually not led by people who have chosen lobbying or journalism as a career, however.


  2. My reaction was mainly to the hed. Notice that the body makes a case against the chances of a moratorium via *lobbying*, so there’s a disconnect.

    Bear in mind that legislators and lobbyists, in accordance with the nature of their jobs, will generally tend to poor-mouth initiatives. That’s true even for environmental-leaning ones.

    A statewide initiative campaign certainly won’t be easy, but would seem to be the only remaining option.

    That poll taken on its face doesn’t point to enough support to pass an initiative in the face of industry opposition, noting also the defeat of the severance tax measure a few years back, but if you look at the detailed questions you’ll see that climate change and earthquakes weren’t even mentioned as a basis for concern. Those will make a big difference. Then of course we have the recent pipeline and rail disasters, plus the ongoing surface spill from the subterranean blowout in Alberta. IMO all of that adds up to a sufficient case.

    This is conveniently the exact right time to start an initiative process aimed at November 2014. Time for me to get to work!


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