Carson City officials were confused. Their Southern California city had been drilled for oil since the 1920s, depleting much of the easily accessible oil available, yet Occidental Petroleum was asking for permission to sink an additional 200 wells for a large-scale oil and gas development. At the same time, the company was relocating to Texas and creating a separate arm for California operations, a classic tactic used by large corporations to shield themselves from lawsuits. What was Occidental up to?
The plan initially called for hydrofracking, but when members of the town protested, the company claimed it wouldn’t frack at the new wells; or, at least, it wasn’t planning to do so in the near future. City Council members weren’t convinced, however, because something about the entire setup seemed a little peculiar to them. Occidental was preparing to sink a lot of time and money into wells that might not yield anything, unless it was planning to frack at the new sites — and maybe it had actually been fracking all along. That wouldn’t come as much of a surprise in the wake of last year’s revelations that the state has been fracked for over a decade without notice or regulations.
So the City Council debated over what to do. They could allow the plan to push forward, possibly over opposition from residents, or they could reconsider whether they wanted to do business with Occidental. Ultimately, they decided on a rather shocking turn of events: a 45 day ban on new drilling, unanimously approved, with the option to extend further if necessary. Not just a ban on fracking, but a total ban on drilling, making Carson City a trailblazer when it comes to creatively fighting fracking from corporations that aren’t being totally honest about their intentions.
The state as a whole is fighting fracking, but Governor Brown has been reluctant when it comes to approving moratoriums or bans on fracking. Carson City’s decision to take the matter into its own hands is a warning sign that some California cities aren’t interested in waiting for state action, and would rather get going on effective regulation and possible bans on their own. This could create a potential clash with state and even federal law, something Californians are used to at this point, as they’re accustomed to passing, and fighting for, tough environmental legislation.
Carson City knows firsthand the results of failing to act in a timely fashion; a heavily contaminated housing tract is creating nightmares for the city, as residents and oil companies fight it out over contamination, who is responsible, and cleanup. The scene at the Carousel housing tract was enough to make City Council members err on the side of caution when it came to approving more oil and gas exploration; despite pressure from Occidental, they wanted to protect the health and welfare of residents before opening the door to more environmental problems.
This isn’t the first place where residents have tried to ban or place a moratorium on oil and gas development and/or fracking. Many attempts have been unsuccessful, with oil companies suing to protect what they see as their rights to do business in these regions, but with a growing number of cities following suit, the industry may have trouble mustering supporting arguments when it takes bans to court.
Photo credit: Nestor Galina.
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