Two days after California rejects fracking moratorium, new earthquake strikes L.A.


Earlier this year, I told you that Southern California could be where the proverbial rubber hits the road for Big Oil and its decade-long adventure with fracking. Although the geology underneath Southern California is rich with natural resources including fossil fuels, the region also has special issues that make it a terrible candidate for the fracking process. One is that the drilling process requires literally billions of gallons of water — in a region that is currently parched by a massive drought. What’s more, scientists are linking fracking to earthquake in regions that have had little or no seismic activity, like Oklahoma and Ohio. So you could imagine the fears about such drilling in the Southern California, arguably the most earthquake prone region in the nation, perched above the San Andreas Fault.

The obvious problems with fracking in California have led activists to push for a statewide moratorium until scientists and experts get a better handle on the drilling technology. Analysts thought the measure had a decent change of passing in Sacramento, but the proposal poked a stick at the hornet’s nest that woke up Big Oil and its political influence:

A California bill that would have banned fracking while the state studied its risks was narrowly defeated in the state Senate on Thursday, despite polling that showed a majority of California voters favored the legislation.

SB 1132, authored by Democratic state senators Holly Mitchell and Mark Leno, failed to pass with a vote of 18-16. In all, seven Democrats prevented the bill from moving forward, with four voting against the bill and three more abstaining from voting.

The bill’s defeat was widely seen as a win for the state’s large oil lobby, led by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). The group, according to Truth Out, spent $4.6 million in 2013 on lobbying in California, and has so far spent $1.4 million in just the first 3 months of 2014. Altogether, the oil industry — including WSPA, Chevron, and BP — spent more than $56 million lobbying the California Legislature from 2009 through 2013.

The group Californians Against Fracking — which includes, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Oil Change International — estimates $15 million has been spent altogether on lobbying activities to specifically defeat SB 1132.

Just two days after the measure failed, a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck the Los Angeles area about five miles north of the Westwood community, up in the Santa Monica Mountains. I know, I know…a middling earthquake striking L.A. is like announcing that the sun rose in the east today, right? Perhaps, but there are some reasons that the shallow earthquakes now striking this area are a special cause for concern.

For one thing, the pinpointed area where the earthquake was centered had not been a location noted for seismic activity. There has not been a significant earthquake in the Santa Monica Mountains for about 80 years, according to reports, but there have been at least two in close proximity so far this year. What’s more, it’s been reported that fracking activity is taking place close by the epicenter of yesterday’s quake.

This was the reaction when the earlier event happened in March:

Three Los Angeles City Council members Tuesday called on city staff to investigate whether oil and natural gas drilling methods like fracking caused the magnitude-4.4 temblor.

 The staff would work directly with several regional, state and federal agencies to produce a report looking into whether a link exists between hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the quake.

According to a motion Councilmen Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin, and seconded by Councilman Bernard Parks, seismologists described the 6:26 a.m. earthquake as the strongest to “hit directly under the Santa Monica Mountains in the 80 years since seismic record-keeping began in the area.”

“Coincidentally, now that we’ve had an earthquake that’s about the size that seems to be happening in other states, it seemed like a time to focus on this more clearly,” Koretz said. “There are states that historically have not had earthquakes, they’ve been getting earthquake swarms now that fracking has begun.”

Look, I’d be the first to agree that it’s scientifically difficult, if not impossible, to link any individual earthquake to fracking and to deep-well wastewater injection that is taking place nearby — especially in a state like California where we all know that seismic activity was already occurring. However, the patterns that we’re seeing in the Los Angeles area — temblors in zones that hadn’t been quake-prone — is suspiciously similar to what we’ve encountered in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

The bigger question is this — why even take the chance of the risk of triggering a more powerful, destructive event? There’s mounting evidence that underground oil reserves in Southern California are not nearly as large as geologists once forecast — yet the risks of fracking are enormous. It’s a questionable activity under the best circumstances — but the circumstances in fault-prone L.A. are the worst around.

Read more about the failure of the California fracking moratorium:

Here’s the L.A. Times coverage of Sunday night’s earthquake:

To find out more about the 4.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Westwood in March, please check out:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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