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Fracking opponents headed to Oakland Saturday for large march

Thousands of environmental and community activists - including a large contingent from Sonoma County - are expected to march in Oakland Saturday to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to ban hydraulic fracturing for oil.

Organizers say the controversial method of extracting oil and gas from deep within rock formations, known more commonly as “fracking,” is at odds with the governor’s vow in his recent inaugural address to make California a leader in the fight against climate change.

“More and more we are moving to a clean energy economy,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action. “To continue with dirty fuel sources won’t help us get there.”

Participants are estimating that as many 10,000 people coming from around the state will be at Saturday’s demonstration in Oakland, where Brown lives.

Two large buses were chartered to take demonstrators from Santa Rosa this morning in addition to others carpooling to Oakland.

The gathering has been billed by organizers as the largest demonstration against fracking in U.S. history, noted Sandra Lupien, a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch, a national nonprofit that advocates for safe, sustainable food and water, part of a broad-based coalition of more than 100 groups participating in the demonstration.

She said fossil fuels need to be phased out quickly to avert catastrophic effects of global warming.

Fracking opponents have been dogging Brown for more than a year, urging him to stop the practice, which involves forcing water, chemicals and other materials into rock formations to expand cracks and allow oil and gas to flow more freely.

Proponents say it creates jobs, billions in tax revenue and less reliance on foreign oil. But critics say it is a threat to public health and water supplies.

“Fracking is dangerous. It’s polluting water. Our aquifers are being poisoned,” said Donna Warshaw, a member of 350 Sonoma County, an organization involved in bolstering the global grass-roots movement to solve the climate crisis.

“It’s adding to climate change and is not a viable extraction method,” she said.

But the oil industry and its allies counter that critics are using scare tactics to sway public opinion.

“The facts of the matter is (fracking) has been occurring in California for more than half a century and there are strong safeguards in place to ensure oversight and public disclosure of how the process occurs,” said Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Californians for Energy Independence, a statewide coalition that supports domestic energy production.

She noted that California is among the top consumers of oil and gas in the world, behind the United States as a whole and China. The state uses all of what it produces - which accounts for about 37 percent of what it consumes.

Without fracking, Lockhart said, even more oil would need to be brought in to California by tankers and rail cars.

“It doesn’t make sense overnight to turn off our reliance on fossil fuels,” she said.

Brown said in his inaugural address that he was moving the state toward 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, but organizers of Saturday’s event, “The March for Real Climate Leadership,” say his support for the oil industry and fracking undermines that goal.

Organizers say opposition to fracking is growing and point to the New York state ban on the practice announced in December by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

But Brown doesn’t appear to be inclined to follow suit, judging from his comments at a news conference Friday, in which he underscored society’s reliance on fossil fuels for transportation.

“As we speak, protesters and nonprotesters are burning up gasoline that is being shipped from Iraq, from Russia, from Venezuela and all sorts of other places, and coming in on trains, so whatever we don’t (have) here we are going to get from someone else until we get that moratorium on driving - which I haven’t heard proposed yet,” Brown said, according to the Associated Press.

A number of cities in California have approved bans, or come out against fracking. Voters last year passed fracking bans in Mendocino and San Benito counties, but turned down a proposed ban in Santa Barbara County. There has been scant oil and gas production on the North Coast.

California regulators mistakenly authorized oil companies to inject production fluids and waste into federally protected aquifers more than 2,500 times, risking contamination of underground water supplies, according to an Associated Press review released this week. So far, state officials say they have found no evidence that water wells have been contaminated.

The vast majority of fracking in California takes place in Kern County. Critics of the oil extraction method say it impacts the poor and communities of color disproportionately.

“Over 97 percent of all disclosed fracking in California occurred in Kern County, which is 61 percent Latino,” said Madeline Stano, an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, with offices in Delano and Oakland.

She said fracking produces dangerous “fugitive” emissions, including methane, as well as diesel fumes from thousands of trucks associated with the wells that spew more particulate matter into California’s Central Valley. The region is rated as one of the most-polluted air basins in the country.

Stano said the area is burdened with high rates of asthma and other illnesses, which could be exacerbated by fracking practices.

She said there is a wellhead in the community of Shafter just 1,200 feet from an elementary school and wells are located in almond groves and fields.

“You see farmworkers in T-shirts and sun hats picking next to a fracking site with no separation, and oil workers in hazmat suits,” she said.

“They are drilling first and asking questions later,” Stano continued. “It is very much a Wild West scenario where regulators are chasing after the industry haphazardly and not with much force. Communities are being used as guinea pigs.”

But Lockhart, of Californians for Energy Independence, said state laws passed in 2013 put in place a number of safeguards, including mandatory public disclosure of the chemicals used; well integrity testing; regular testing of nearby drinking water sources; and notification to surrounding land owners of any fracking activity.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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