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Chris Reed
Will the Golden State Go Brown?
The fracking revolution might be coming to California.
June 12, 2013

Perhaps more than in any other state, aggressive environmentalism is accepted as the norm in California. To outsiders, it may seem stunning that the late Peter Douglas, the self-described “radical” who guided the California Coastal Commission for 25 years, wanted to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit property rights. To those who live outside the Golden State, hearing that the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board’s new regulations require watersheds to be as pristine as they were before civilization arrived in California sounds like a story straight out of The Onion. But skeptical state residents shrug off such absurdities. They know environmentalism is so entrenched in California that it amounts to a semi-official secular religion. Some Democrats are so tight with greens that they passed a law in 2006 forcing the state to shift to cleaner but costlier renewable energy by 2020—even though this would put the state at a permanent economic disadvantage.

All of which makes Sacramento’s new openness to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” so astounding. When the 2013 legislative session began, the state chapters of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club vowed to impose a moratorium on the radically improved energy-exploration process, which uses water cannons a mile or more beneath the surface to break through rock formations and tap oil and natural-gas supplies. Environmentalist groups readily found lawmakers to sponsor such legislation. They did so even as a University of Southern California study confirmed the enormous economic potential of developing the Monterey shale under much of central and southern California—potentially the nation’s largest shale resource.

In the most recent legislative session, however, all but one of the measures seeking either explicit or de facto moratoria on fracking failed. The state senate passed a bill requiring the crafting of comprehensive state regulations, but its author, Fran Pavley, a Democrat from Agoura Hills, says she will accept an amendment to the measure to scuttle one of its key original provisions—a fracking moratorium until January 1, 2015, by which time the guidelines would be in place. The regulations will be developed as originally planned, but the moratorium is likely gone.

Why has expanded fracking gone from the longest of long shots to nearly a sure thing? Veteran Sacramento watchers say green scare tactics—especially the false claims that fracking is untested—failed for several reasons. For one thing, Governor Jerry Brown struck a straightforward tone on regulation, angering greens by presenting the expansion of fracking in the state as a given. For another, the Obama administration’s support for fracking—made plain in a November 2011 report and reaffirmed last month by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell—undercut environmentalists’ warnings. Finally, the USC study’s projections that fracking could generate up to $24.6 billion in state and local tax revenue, along with 2.8 million jobs by 2020, grabbed the attention of union-aligned Democratic lawmakers eager to create well-paying blue-collar jobs.

Even devout environmentalists seem to be waking up to the windfall that could ensue if the brown-energy revolution arrives in the Golden State. Consider the recent behavior of state senator Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat, Coastal Conservancy member, smart-growth advocate, and driving force in California environmentalism for decades. Last month, after her proposal to increase taxes on oil production died in a senate committee, Evans told reporters that she remained confident the bill would pass. “If we as a state are going to expand fracking operations, we ought to tax it,” she said—sounding like a lawmaker who sees fracking as part of California’s future.

For years, Sacramento Democrats have been indifferent to broad economic growth. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger exhorted them to “create a bigger pie,” not fight for shares of a pie that keeps getting smaller. It’s finally dawning on at least some Democrats that Schwarzenegger’s advice makes sense.

Jerry Brown understands this better than most. At a May 14 meeting with reporters, the governor expressed the requisite concerns about ensuring that fracking could be done safely in California before encouraging its expansion. But the governor also said: “This is not about just saying, ideologically, yea or nay. It’s about looking at what could be a fabulous opportunity. . . . And if you remember about oil drilling, oil drilling in Long Beach, which was really pioneered I think when my father was governor, poured I don’t know how many billions into higher education.”

At least in terms of oil and gas exploration, could Jerry Brown’s California resemble Pat Brown’s California again? The answer just might be yes.

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