Monday, November 25, 2013

A Fracking Moratorium is the New Litmus Test for Elected Officials

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

After years of spirited battles by environmental activists, stacks of lawsuits, countless reports and studies by health officials, and the expression of concern by President Obama, California state officials finally agreed to impose some regulations on the practice of fracking. Governor Jerry Brown put the official state imprimatur on this concern when he released proposed draft regulations that would regulate fracking. Fracking entails pumping chemically treated high pressure water into the ground to fracture rock and soil to release more oil. The furious debate is over just how much of a health and environmental danger this poses. There’s much evidence that fracking contaminates the soil, water, air quality, increases the danger of earthquakes, and  has damaged homes and structures in residential neighborhoods that front oil drilling sites. The best example is the Inglewood oil field. Homeowner groups and environmentalists in the area abutting the fields have fought a protracted fight to get the state to impose either a total ban or moratorium on fracking until it’s fully determined what the health and safety risks are.

This is where local elected officials that represent the area come in. When fracking first became a major issue and concern of homeowners and residents in the Inglewood, Baldwin Hills, and Culver City area, local officials were largely silent about it. As the evidence mounted that fracking posed real dangers to health and property values, some officials called for studies of the practice, and later a temporary moratorium on fracking to determine how severe the dangers were. But there were other officials who still maintained a wall of silence on the issue, or, as some enraged neighborhood groups charged, were openly or quietly taking funding from the oil drilling site operators. They, of course, have countless piles of money to dump into the fight against any anti-fracking controls, and that means money to plop into the coffers of compliant politicians. They in essence had a vested interested in stonewalling efforts to get a moratorium on fracking. But the issue could not be ignored no matter how great the effort to suppress action against the practice.

The state legislature during this period was also deeply complicit in torpedoing any action on fracking. Bills that eventually were introduced after relentless pressure from environmentalists either were tabled in committee or voted down. This only intensified the determination of environmentalists, homeowner groups and some local officials to get the legislature to take action. It finally did when it finally passed a bill calling for regulations, and thus Governor Brown’s subsequent action on it.

However, there are two gaping problems with this. One is that the proposed regulations simply require the oil companies to tell what chemicals they use in the fracking process and some monitoring of them. It would not require the companies to implement any special controls to insure that the chemicals used pose no threat to the air, groundwater, not to mention damage to homes and streets in the area surrounding a field such as the Inglewood oil field. Even with this minimal disclosure requirement there is a loophole. There are exemptions against them disclosing the chemicals if they infringe on oil industry trade secrets. Who determines that? The oil companies do, of course. The state will do two more studies on the safety and environmental impact of fracking. But those reports won’t be finished until 2015. The other problem is that of the five cities chosen to hold public hearings on the proposed state fracking regulations. Los Angeles was not one of them. This is both a glaring and insulting omission. It was the battle over the drilling hazards at the Inglewood field that sparked state and local officials to take the action they did take on fracking.

This is now the new litmus test for current local elected officials and those who want to be elected in the future. Put simply, will they fully support a moratorium on fracking and if it’s confirmed that fracking does pose the severe health and environmental risks that activists claim and many studies bear out, will they support a full ban on the practice? In any election now and in the future, this is the point blank question that any elected official in Los Angeles must answer without any equivocation. They also must also fully disclose any monies they have received from the oil lobby. You can’t take gobs of oil lobby money without being hopelessly compromised in assessing the real hazard of fracking. Brown and the state legislature and some local elected officials took the first big step in protecting the health and safety of Los Angeles residents by establishing minimal rules on fracking. It’s clearly not enough. The Los Angeles City Council, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, and all state legislators that represent L.A. County cities must continue to put relentless pressure on the oil industry and regulatory agencies to control or end fracking. And this applies to all future elected officials as well. If they won’t commit to that they don’t deserve to hold office.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Listen to his weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles every Friday, 9:00 to 9:30 AM and every Saturday at Noon on KPFK-Radio, 90.7 FM.

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