Well, folks, any hope for getting California’s state government to pass legislation that declares a moratorium on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is effectively dead for this year. Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell’s fracking moratorium bill, SB 1132, died on the Senate floor on May 28 when it fell three votes short of the majority needed for approval.
Fracking is a highly controversial oil and natural gas extraction technique that uses huge amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand to blast open nonporous rock formations deep underground. The method releases oil and gas, but also poses a wide array of threats to human and environmental health. The rationale for a fracking moratorium was to halt the procedure until more studies are conducted to ensure it can be done without causing harm.
To her great credit, Pasadena’s state Sen. Carol Liu, a Democrat, voted “yes” on SB 1132. She deserves thanks and congratulations. However, the bill was killed on the Senate floor (after being passed by three different Senate committees) when five spineless Senate Democrats failed to vote on the bill, thus depriving it of the majority vote it could have otherwise achieved. Three other Democratic Senators did not vote on SB 1132 because they have recently been suspended from the Senate for alleged criminal offenses.
The voters don’t send politicians to Sacramento to not vote (abstain) on important pieces of legislation. We expect our elected representatives to do their homework, make principled decisions and cast their votes either up or down while bills make their way through committees and on to the floors of the Senate and Assembly. Plus, in this case, the five Senate Democrats who abstained can’t claim they were simply neutral on SB 1132. Their failure to vote was effectively a “no” vote and the legislation died because it was deprived of majority support.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent statewide poll found that 68 percent of Californians support a fracking moratorium, and a majority would be more likely to vote for a legislator who supports such a measure. So how do we explain the failure of our state government to enact a moratorium on fracking for two years in a row? Gee, do you think it could have something to do with money?
For years Big Oil has poured big money into lobbying California legislators and providing them with campaign cash. For example, last year the Western States Petroleum Association ranked first in lobbying spending, $4.7 million, and Chevron was close behind, spending $4 million, according to the Times. As a result, Big Oil has a stranglehold on our state government, and many of our elected representatives follow its dictates while ignoring their constituents. The failure of our state government to put in place a fracking moratorium is just the latest example.
And the five cowardly Senate Democrats who failed to vote on SB 1132? It turns out they have received substantially more campaign money from the oil industry than supporters of the bill. Specifically, the five Democrats who abstained from voting have received, on average, 4.5 times more campaign cash from Big Oil than the Democrats who supported SB 1132, according to the Times.
According to a report released in April by California Common Cause and the ACCE Institute, “Big Oil Floods the Capital,” one Democratic senator who abstained on SB 1132 has accepted $26,481 from Big Oil. In stark contrast, the main sponsor of SB 1132, Sen. Mitchell, has accepted no donations from Big Oil. Surprise, surprise.
Because SB 1132 has died for now in the Senate (it might be re-introduced next year with a new number), apparently no legislation on a fracking moratorium will be taken up by the state Assembly. So, Pasadena’s representative in that chamber, Chris Holden, will be temporarily spared the agony of having to vote on this issue. As he will soon become the Assistant Majority Floor Leader in the Assembly, and thus No. 3 in the Democratic chain of command, Holden will wield considerable influence.
In the meantime, the “Big Oil Floods the Capital” report lists Mr. Holden as having accepted $7,100 from the oil industry in 2013. Maybe that does not sound like much, but 2013 is the first year Holden has served in the Assembly. At the rate he’s going, and if he remains in state government for more than a decade in either the Assembly or the Senate, he could easily zoom to the top of the “Big Oil” list.
Now that the US Energy Information Administration has slashed by 96 percent an earlier estimate of the amount of recoverable oil from California’s vast Monterey shale deposits, as the Times has reported, this might shrink the oil industry in California and reduce its corrupting influence. And, if we’re lucky, it may also quench the flames of fracking fever.
John Grula, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.