LA City Council Kicks Up Dust Over Fracking, But Actual Impact Could Be Minimal

Contributed by Caroline Toole

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council completed the first step toward suspending hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the use of wastewater-disposal wells within Los Angeles city limits. The City Council unanimously passed a motion compelling the City Attorney to draft a zoning ordinance to prohibit fracking, other means of well-stimulation (including acidizing and gravel-packing), and the use of wastewater disposal wells. Acidizing is similar to fracking in purpose, but uses chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid rather than a high-pressure mixture of chemicals, water, and sand. Gravel-packing, as the name implies, involves packing the well-bore with gravel in order to prevent sand from damaging the drilling tools. Once the City Attorney’s office drafts the zoning ordinance, it will go back to the City Council for approval. If passed, Los Angeles would be the only oil-producing city in California, as well as the largest city in the United States, to ban fracking.

Although this development has grabbed headlines in California, its actual impact on the energy industry may be less dramatic. According to the Los Angeles Times, although Los Angeles has 1,880 active wells, since last summer only 17 of them used gravel-packing or acidizing, and none of them used fracking. Therefore, the motion may serve more as a political statement than as an actual limitation on American energy-development.

The City Council’s motion states that the ordinance would be in effect until the City Council “is assured” of an expansive list of conditions, including that energy companies can mitigate the environmental effects of fracking, that the city’s water supplies are safe and “reliabl[e],” and that the health and property of Los Angeles residents is secure. Furthermore, the motion indicates that the ordinance would not be lifted until “state and federal legislation and regulations are put in place that include protections from the adverse effect of hydraulic fracturing, gravel packing, acidizing, wastewater disposal and related activities, consistent with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Neither the motion itself nor the councilmen’s statements subsequent to its passage indicate what steps, if any, the council plans to take to gain the requisite assurances. The motion was passed despite the fact that California Governor Jerry Brown signed comprehensive fracking regulations into law this past September. It should also be noted that fracking is in fact not subject to regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act or the Clean Water Act, as provided by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Additionally, most oil and gas production sites, including fracking sites, are not required to obtain permits under the Clean Air Act because their emissions do not exceed the Act’s minimum standards.