LOS ANGELES — An unusual schism has opened up on California’s politically dominant left flank, where Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime favorite of the state’s environmentalists, has refused to give in to the climate change movement’s demand for a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing.
His stance comes despite the growing clamor in the aftermath of fellow Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision in December to allow a similar statewide ban of the revolutionary oil and gas drilling technique in New York. Hollywood stars and environmental activists badly want California to be next.
The irony, of course, is that there may be no greener governor than Mr. Brown, an early and aggressive leader on clean and renewable energy. But touting the benefits of the lower carbon emissions from natural gas is an increasingly unacceptable position in the climate change movement, a key coalition of the Democratic Party.
Mr. Brown’s refusal to budge on a fracking ban is “frustrating,” admits Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, part of the Californians Against Fracking coalition.
“But he is also one of the godfathers of the environmental movement,” said Mr. Jacobson. “He’s got three more years in office, and if he wants to be a climate leader, he’s going to have to complete the other side of the equation, which is dealing with oil and making sure we leave it in the ground.”
Mr. Jacobson is more polite than some activists, who have heckled the governor at public appearances with chants of “Climate leaders don’t frack!”
After the governor rejected an “emergency petition” for a moratorium earlier this year from Californians Against Fracking, Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity blasted “Gov. Brown’s refusal to face the facts on fracking.”
Along with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Mr. Brown represents an increasingly rare political breed: a Democratic governor in a blue or blue-leaning state that’s also home to rich deposits of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. Both governors have tightened regulations on fracking — while refusing to support an outright moratorium or ban.
In California, the pressure has surged as a result of last month’s oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast, the worsening drought — the fracking process involves blasting water at shale to loosen oil and gas — and even research linking hydraulic fracturing to minor earthquakes.
Last year, tony Beverly Hills became the first city to prohibit fracking, a not-entirely symbolic gesture given that there is a Beverly Hills Oil Field next to the high school. Other jurisdictions, including Marin County, Oakland and Culver City, have passed resolutions calling for a state fracking ban.
Mr. Brown has defended fracking’s safety record while insisting on balancing the movement’s health and safety concerns with the economic benefits of oil and gas drilling. Much of the state’s fossil fuel exploration and development takes place in the Central Valley, which is plagued by high poverty.
Mr. Brown has also scolded his critics for parochialism, saying that the fuel to power California’s 30 million cars will simply come from elsewhere under a state ban, while warning against “jumping on any ideological bandwagons.”
A study of the economic, health and environmental impact of fracking requested by Mr. Brown and the state legislature is expected by July 1.
“For one, he’s going with a good deal of scientific evidence that suggests that fracking is environmentally safe. Second, he’s also concerned with the state economy,” said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “This is his effort to improve the economy in those places where you can’t smell salt water.”
No more races
Turning his back on a key demand of his base may sound politically risky, but if anyone is in a position to do so, it’s Mr. Brown, who’s serving his fourth and final term as governor.
“He’s has nothing left to prove. Nobody has any leverage on him. So he can pretty much do whatever he wants,” said Mr. Pitney.
Dave Quast, California director of the pro-industry Energy in Depth, said the anti-fracking push in California is somewhat ironic given that much of the state’s terrain is unsuitable for the horizontal drilling process used in hydraulic fracturing.
As a result, the vast majority of wells near coastal communities, such as those in the Inglewood Oil Field, undergo conventional vertical drilling, he said.
“We have very complex geology here,” Mr. Quast said. “Horizontal drilling becomes pretty rare, if it’s used at all, because there’s just not long strata of rock formations for them to bore into. It’s just the nature of the extensive faulting.”
Fracking is extensively employed in states like Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania that sit atop rich shale deposits. California’s vast Monterey Shale is seen as the next frontier for fracking, although federal authorities recently slashed their estimates of recoverable shale in the 1,750-mile formation by 96 percent.
“More than 90 percent of the fracking that happens in California happens in Kern County [in the Central Valley],” Mr. Quast said. “It happens far away from population centers. They don’t even have potable water where it happens, so it’s been going on here for decades, and we haven’t had issues.”
While Mr. Brown isn’t what anyone would describe as a cheerleader of the oil and gas industry, “on hydraulic fracturing, he’s been very sound,” said Mr. Quast.
“His view has been, and I think correctly, that we will consume oil. California is the third-largest consumer of gas and diesel on the planet, after China and the [entire] U.S.,” Mr. Quast said. “It’s not only better for our economy but for our environment to produce that oil at home under the strictest environmental rules in the country. And we’re not importing that oil by tankers and by rail into the state.
“Not only is natural gas important, but it’s cleaner to burn, and that’s the reason we have the lowest carbon emissions in 20 years,” he said.
Mr. Jacobson argued that, “in California, we don’t frack for natural gas, we frack for oil. The oil tends to be of a very low quality, so it needs refining.
“We’ve got to leave some of the oil in the ground,” he added. “California should be leading the climate debate on this by showing that we can leave our oil in the ground and still have a vibrant and healthy economy.”
Bill Whalen, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said that Mr. Brown has become an unlikely ally of California business in his second go-round as governor — after his two-term stint in the 1970s. While he may be liberal, he’s not as liberal as some of those in the Democrat-controlled state legislature.
“There’s been a very funny relationship between the business community and Gov. Brown,” Mr. Whalen said. “They view him maybe not as a friend, but, at the end of the day, their last line of defense against the legislature,” which is dominated by Democrats.
Even the state legislature, however, has twice defeated bills to enact fracking moratoriums, most recently a year ago. If California is to enact a ban anytime soon, it’s going to come via an executive order from the governor, said Mr. Jacobson.
“I don’t think that the legislature [will move] on a ban on fracking. There are certain regulations they’ll pass,” he said. “I think this issue really comes down to the governor and his leadership and his vision.”