In September 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown stated, “It’s time for courage, it’s time for creativity and it’s time for boldness to tackle climate change.” In his first two terms as governor in the 1970s, Brown was at the forefront of sustainability, introducing energy efficiency standards and landmark environmental protections, which is why it comes as a shock to learn that he has allowed hydraulic fracturing in California.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is an extreme form of oil and natural gas extraction that involves pumping a mix of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground in order to break up rock surrounding fossil fuel deposits. In California, fracking for oil has taken place in at least 10 different counties as well as off the coast. We need to ban fracking now in order to fight climate change, properly manage the state’s limited water supply, preserve public health and bring justice to the most vulnerable communities in the state.
Fracking undermines efforts to tackle climate change while perpetuating the oil industry’s irresponsible behavior. First and foremost, the extraction process increases greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. As for corporate irresponsibility, one need only recall Chevron’s recent pizza coupon distribution to residents of a Pennsylvania town after a natural gas well exploded. With the passage of AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, in 2006, California set a goal to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Pursuing more fracking in California will not bring us closer to achieving that goal. Banning fracking, however, will.
Fracking also further strains California’s water resources. The fracking process demands millions of gallons of water per well. We can’t divert this precious resource to the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the public. Wastewater from fracking is polluted with toxic chemicals and not treatable for human use. Ultimately, the wastewater is injected deep underground, and in the words of John Grula of the Southern California Federation of Scientists, it is “essentially lost forever.” A public good as crucial as water should not be jeopardized for corporate profits. Brown must ban fracking if he wants to leave a proud, sustainable legacy for future Californians.
Public health is also particularly at risk in an environment in which fracking takes place. Both the chemical inputs of fracking and its pollutant output present dangers to humans and wildlife. Community water supplies have been contaminated by chemicals such as arsenic and methane, while respiratory illnesses related to benzene and ozone pollution have been documented in the areas where fracking takes place. Low-income communities bear the disproportionate burden of these health hazards. This presents a grave injustice that cannot stand.
Despite strong public opposition to fracking, the oil and gas industry continues to insist that fracking’s benefits outweigh its costs. The fact that fracking has taken place in California for decades is used as evidence that the practice is well-developed and safe for the public. Over this timespan, economic and energy infrastructures have emerged that support economic growth and a stable energy supply. Finally, studies conducted by government agencies have shown that environmental risks from fracking — such as water contamination and earthquakes — are minimal to nonexistent. For the oil and gas industry, concerns about fracking are unfounded, and placing a ban on the extraction method would do more harm than good.
The industry’s depiction of fracking leaves out key elements of how destructive the process is, however. Regulation has not been in place, and new and more dangerous techniques have emerged. If there was such high confidence in fracking’s safety, why have the chemicals used not been disclosed yet? The fossil fuel industry cites the need to preserve trade secrets, but why should corporate profits come at the expense of public health and a stable climate? Fracking is not safe and has not been proven to be safe. While it can provide jobs to certain communities, the costs to these places and their inhabitants are considerable.
Brown has made great strides to address climate change in the past and promised to do so again as part of his re-election bid for governor. The overwhelming costs to our planet in terms of continued fossil fuel consumption cannot be underestimated, and fracking’s threats to the state water supply and public health must be taken seriously. On Feb. 28, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to consider a moratorium on fracking within the city limits, becoming the largest municipality in the nation to do so. The California public continues to voice its opposition and has organized rallies in Sacramento on March 15 and on the UC Berkeley campus March 18. Brown can join this movement by making the courageous decisions to take on the fossil fuel industry and ban fracking in California.
Christophe LaBelle and Roberta Giordano are with Students Against Fracking, a campus coalition of student groups working to ban fracking in California.