California’s oil industry has an 800-pound gorilla reputation of getting pretty much what it wants in Sacramento. Armed with millions of dollars to pay lobbyists and a well-oiled astroturf machine to create the illusion of public support, it has successfully leaned on the state’s legislators – despite the Democratic supermajority in both houses – to stay away from any meaningful reform efforts.
But five California legislators are not having it. In no evident mood for pussyfooting around, Senators Wiener and Limon, joined by Senator Allen and Assembly Members Stone and Kalra as co-authors, have introduced SB 467, a bill that takes the gloves off in the fight to protect the public against the unusually dirty and risky oil extraction practices that are prevalent in our state.
The bill will have three distinct components. The first is a response to Governor Newsom’s call in an executive order last September for a ban on fracking in the state. SB 467 bans new and renewed fracking permits as of 2022, but goes beyond what the Governor called for by also banning other methods of enhanced oil recovery currently in use in California, including steam flooding, water flooding and cyclic steaming. The second component of the bill, not yet in the published text but soon to be amended into it, mandates that all oil drilling operations be set back a minimum of 2,500 feet from homes, schools, and health care facilities. And the third component is an effort to address the employment consequences of a transition away from fossil fuel production.
The Enhanced Oil Recovery Ban
By expanding on the Governor’s mandate to ban fracking, Senators Wiener and Limon are recognizing that fracking – while highly problematic as a production method – is not the biggest threat to California communities. Unlike Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas, and other oil producing states, where the boom in oil and gas production over the last two decades was driven by fracking, fracking is not particularly prevalent in California. Governor Newsom has stated that it represents less than 2 percent of our overall oil production.
The enhanced oil recovery methods that SB 467 would ban, however, are far more widespread in California, and are wreaking well-known environmental havoc. Cyclic steaming is the most visible offender. Designed to melt out of the ground the tarry, viscous oil that’s left after a century of production of the easier-to-get more liquid oil, cyclic steaming involves heating up large amounts of steam and pumping it into the ground. Not only is this process absurdly greenhouse gas-intensive, since the steam is generally heated up using fossil fuels, but it regularly causes oil spills, particularly when used in a manner that fractures the rock formation containing the oil. A couple of years ago, Chevron caused a major spill in the Cymric oil field in Kern County using this method, but such spills are nothing new – uncontrolled releases have been happening in that field since 2003.
The Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), which oversees oil drilling in California, finally began to regulate cyclic steaming in April 2019. Only months later, after CalGEM took stock of the spills the practice was causing, Governor Newsom issued a moratorium on the high-pressure variant that breaks up rock formations. That moratorium remains in effect while CalGEM is studying cyclic steaming. But the Wiener and Limon bill takes the bolder approach, based on the pretty abundant evidence of harm we have right now, of simply calling a permanent halt to the practice.
What we don’t know – and would know, if we had a more robust and transparent oil well permitting system in place – is what percentage of California’s production is represented by the non-fracking oil recovery methods that are swept into the SB 467 proposed ban. Informal estimates are that cyclic steaming (high- and low-pressure combined) accounts for roughly 21 percent of California’s oil production – that is, more than 10 times what the Governor has said fracking accounts for.
Beyond that, we simply do not have a solid estimate for the percentage of…