Friday, March 23 , 2018, 12:03 pm | Fair 59º


Wayne Mellinger: Protecting Santa Barbara County — Community Rights vs. Corporate Control

A specter is haunting Santa Barbara County — the specter of fracking! At a recent Board of Supervisors budget hearing, several speakers, including several representing industrial interests from North County, urged the supervisors to erase all of our fiscal worries by simply issuing more permits for oil drilling.

These speakers suggested that we “take advantage” of “new technologies” to access the Monterey Shale oil, which lies beneath the surface of large swaths of our region.

While I recognize the need for our county to find new revenue streams to pay for public safety programs and provide a “safety net” for our most disadvantaged populations, I urge extreme caution in rushing forward with increased permits for oil production.

So, we have the industrial concerns of North County proposing increased oil production through so-called “new technologies,” and the county supervisors having to consider the issuing of more permits. What role do we as a community get to play in these decisions? Who decides?

The issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is commonly known, was also the subject of two very different documentary films in Santa Barbara on the same night this past month. The “pro-fracking” documentary FrackNation by Phelim McAleer screened at the Reagan Ranch Center, while Gasland 2 by the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Josh Fox was screened at UCSB. Clearly, discussion about fracking is in the still-relatively-clean air of Santa Barbara County!

Previously, I have voiced my concerns about climate change. I had been massively affected by reading environmentalist Bill McKibben’s infamous piece in Rolling Stone magazine last summer, “The Terrifying New Math of Climate Change.”

This article summarized the global scientific consensus that there is five times more carbon left in known oil and gas reserves than is safe to burn if we want a livable planet for our children. Because of the way oil and gas investments work, these reserves are already economically “above ground,” and the fossil fuel industry intends to extract and burn them all.

With our polar ice caps melting and climate disruptions already wreaking havoc in many parts of our country, e.g. Superstorm Sandy and even more around the world, it is hard to fathom that we are still acting as if there is no problem.

If all of this talk about climate change isn’t frightening enough, enter the prospect of dirty and heavily polluting fracking. While it is true that a form of hydraulic fracturing has been around for decades, recent developments by Halliburton Industries have taken these procedures to an unprecedented level of use and of harm.

Fifty years ago, when an oil well would run dry, oil companies would use explosives or highly-pressurized water to fracture sections of rock to loosen up additional stores of oil. But this was only done in vertical and slant wells. Today, the fracking process has energy companies drilling deep into the Earth — often more than a mile below the surface, and then drilling another mile horizontally and injecting a highly-pressurized mix of water, sand and toxic chemicals to crack through the hard shale rock formation to release “trapped” natural gas and oil.

Imagine a 10-layer cake with a thick layer of hard and brittle chocolate with gooey bubbles of fudge in it between the bottom two layers. That is Monterey Shale oil. The hard chocolate is locking in the fudge bubbles, and so to unlock it, you drill down, then turn a sharp corner, drill horizontally across the length of the cake, and then explode and flush out the fudge. The problem with this is that way up toward the top of the cake, between layers two and three and five and six, are fresh groundwater stores.

Since the time the Bush/Cheney administration exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale deposits across the United States have become ground zero for fracking. This exemption is titled the “Halliburton Loophole,” named for the aforementioned massive corporation that developed the horizontal drilling technology.

Fracking is not safe. Each time a well is fracked, millions of gallons of water and tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals can be used. Often wells are fracked more than a dozen times.

The procedure causes methane gas and toxic chemicals to leach into the surrounding aquifers. While half of the toxic soup is recovered, the rest is simply left underground. Open-air pits filled with recovered waste can dot the landscape, releasing volatile organic compounds into the environment.

In states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, they are primarily fracking for “natural gas,” which is being marketed as a “clean” energy alternative. We don’t consider groundwater contamination, methane emissions and radon 226 seepage to be a clean alternative to anything! Why else would the energy industry have asked for exemption from all of those pesky regulatory acts?

Even if this process were clean, and even if natural gas were a cleaner-burning solution for the future, fracking in California is not so much about natural gas as it is about oil — heavy, dirty shale oil. Moreover, in California the industry is required to re-inject the toxic fluids back into the ground, increasing the risk of earthquakes.

Former NASA climatologist James Hansen insists that we cannot afford to continue to develop these unconventional fossil fuels and expect to have a livable planet.

So if fracking is so bad, how could it possibly be allowed to flourish in the United States of America?

To answer this question, we must briefly delve into the process by which environmental regulations are created, expose its flaws and provide a new alternative — “the community rights” approach, which we see as tailor-made to counter these perceived flaws.

So, how are environmental regulations typically made? And why would the laws and rules not be adequate enough to protect our local environments?

First, communities have to become aware that there are potential threats to their environments. Often, there are multiple concerns.

Second, concerned citizens must persuade lawmakers that a problem exists and that government has a responsibility to find solutions.

Third, funding must be allocated to implement and enforce whatever regulations come to be established. Without money, nothing will be done, even if adequate laws are put on the books.

Fourth, in consultation with “interested parties,” regulations are drawn up by appropriate government departments or agencies.

Finally, environmental regulations typically face court challenges and interpretations.

Several problems exist with this process:

» While citizens often begin by voicing multiple concerns, the regulatory process often whittles those down to far few, more “manageable concerns.” Initially, for a hypothetical example, citizens might have been concerned about how that proposed factory pig farm would affect local traffic, the humane treatment of the animals themselves, the waste runoff, the working conditions of the employees as well as air quality. The resulting regulations, forged in consultation with “industry experts,” end up only stipulating the number of particles of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water and ignore all the other concerns.

» In innumerable ways, industrial interests exert an undue influence on the process of drafting regulations. There is the “revolving door” — the cycling of people between their roles as legislators and regulators and the industries affected by legislation and regulation. This can result in “regulatory capture” — when an agency created in the public interest instead advances the industry it is charged with regulating.

Consider that the Environmental Protection Agency said in 2004 that fracking “posed little or no threat to drinking water.” A New York Times editorial stated that the EPA’s study “whitewashed the industry and was dismissed by experts as superficial and politically motivated.”

Recall that the EPA is prohibited from regulating fracking due to the previously mentioned “Halliburton Loophole,” a clause added to the 2005 energy bill at the request of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who was previously a CEO of Halliburton.

As can be seen, the mainstream regulatory approach protects and enhances big-moneyed corporate interests and disenfranchises local populations.

So, what recourse do we have to protect ourselves and our communities? What can the citizens of Santa Barbara County do to stop fracking here? And who should decide?

The “community rights” movement counters the multiple flaws of the mainstream regulatory process. Communities brazenly assert their power to control and protect what happens in their jurisdictions. Across the country, towns and cities have banned fracking within their communities and have removed certain legal protections from corporations.

Pittsburgh, Penn., led the way in November 2010 when its City Council unanimously adopted a Community Bill of Rights outlawing fracking. Since that time, 150 communities have passed some version of community rights.

It is an act of civil disobedience in which local self-determination is insisted upon, and the “pre-emption” of higher levels of government is flatly denied. Remember that many human rights movements have been ushered in through marginally disruptive acts that initially seemed outlandish.

Community and environmental rights are about a lot more than banning fracking; they assert our right to take control of the quality of our local governments and to create a sustainable future. Community rights empowers residents to bypass a regulatory process that protects and serves industry more than it serves us. It returns power to the citizen, rather than counting on the elected to do the right thing.

While the community rights movement may have begun as zoning restrictions for drill operations in residential districts in Pennsylvania, it has emerged as a test case for grassroots participatory democracy. Community rights initiatives could be used to ensure clean water for our vital agricultural interests throughout the county.

How could the “right to frack” be protected by law, while the rights of communities to make decisions about it are illegal?

Our communities face widely divergent and competing visions of the future. Theirs is about a “get rich quick” scheme with a dirty, industrialized fracking economy. Ours is about taking control of our local environment and creating a thriving and sustainable future.

My proposal is to enact a Community Bill of Rights and Fracking Ban, by popular vote if necessary. The citizens of Santa Barbara County want these legitimate rights — such as clean air, clean water and self-determination over our sustainable energy future — regardless of what the state government and corporate industry state to be our valid local concerns. I urge all communities to do the same.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

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