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Sustainability of Agriculture Depends on Fracking Regulations

by Mia Shaw, published

Sustainability of Agriculture Depends on Fracking Regulations Credit: B Brown /

California is the 4th largest oil and gas producing state; according to the Western States Petroleum Association, California received a combined $5.8 billion in fuel excise, corporate, and personal income taxes in 2009. The state is also home to the largest oil shale play in the nation, the Monterey Shale – containing 15 billion barrels of oil – which could be accessed through the process of hydraulic fracturing.

Yet the practice is far from flawless. In addition to fears of drinking water contamination, methane emissions and even claims of earthquakes caused by fracking, there is also the concern of wastewater. As fracking operations may pollute groundwater and use up agricultural water resources, the notoriously controversial technique has the potential to negatively impact agriculture.

In a 1999 incident unrelated to fracking, oil industry wastewater – contaminated with chemicals such as chloride and boron – seeped into ground wells, destroying one central California farmer’s crops. Fearing similar results, many members of California’s food and wine industry see fracking as a threat to the state’s agricultural health.

With concerns across the state over the practice, Senate Bill 4, introduced by Senator Fran Pavley, sought to provide a statutory framework for the comprehensive regulation of fracking in California by requiring that fracking regulations be promulgated by January 1, 2015. A fracking permit system with specified pre-fracking disclosure of the estimated amount of water and chemicals used be established.

“I represent and agricultural community in the Central Valley; farming, agriculture, and food production is the backbone of our economy and water is the life of that. The extent to which we protect our water and natural resources is very important,” said Assemblymember Adam Gray, co-author of SB 4. “At the same time, I represent a community that has high unemployment, and if there is a way to go about oil extraction and fracking in a responsible manner that can provide economic growth and opportunities, folks want to put a structure in place that can do that.”

The bill underwent major changes in the last week of this year's legislative session after intense lobbying from the oil and gas industry; it will now require state regulators to approve all fracking permit requests in California for the next two years — as long as oil and gas companies disclose to state officials what chemicals they're using during hydraulic fracturing. Despite opposition from the environmental community, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 4 into law last month.

According to Senator Pavley, the law is a step in the right direction: “[There are] people from inland agricultural communities, people concerned about unemployment and support hydraulic fracturing, and people concerned that we should be doing more. It's a balancing act, but the good news is at the end of the day, we'll have more transparency and disclosure."

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