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L.A. lawmakers press for action on fracking ban despite new report

L.A. lawmakers who want to bar hydraulic fracturing push back after city staffers cast doubt on the idea

Two lawmakers who want Los Angeles to bar hydraulic fracturing and other kinds of "unconventional drilling" at oil and gas wells are pushing back after city staffers cast doubt on the idea, urging them to swiftly draw up rules that would bar such practices.

The Los Angeles City Council voted in February to start drafting rules that would prohibit hydraulic fracturing -- commonly known as fracking -- and other kinds of "well stimulation" techniques until adequate environmental safeguards are adopted by state and federal governments.

The February decision did not impose those restrictions, but directed city staff to start working on such rules that would be presented to the council for a vote. The planning department was told to come up with "regulatory controls" over fracking in L.A.

But a recent report from city planners raised questions about barring fracking, saying there was "legal uncertainty" about how much local governments could regulate or ban such practices.

The report stated that the city of Compton recently abandoned a similar ban after being sued by the Western States Petroleum Assn., which argued that state law preempted local regulations. The case is still ongoing, and "it is unlikely that this legal issue will be resolved any time soon," the planning department report stated.

Planning officials also warned that the city had no way to track all oil and gas recovery activity in Los Angeles and lacked employees who were experts on petroleum engineering or geology, among other practical challenges.

In light of such concerns, the department recommended against barring hydraulic fracturing and other targeted kinds of well stimulation, arguing that the city should instead seek other regulations on drilling to protect public health and safety.

It recommended hiring an outside expert to come up with possible measures "to alleviate impacts of oil and gas activity broadly throughout the city."

Councilmen Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz, who championed the ban, said in a letter Wednesday that they were "extremely disappointed" that the planning department had not drafted the rules as it was asked to do nearly nine months ago.

"Your report outlines interesting recommendations and important considerations," Bonin and Koretz wrote to the deputy director of planning, Alan Bell.

"The council, however, asked for a draft ordinance establishing a fracking moratorium for its consideration, not a report without an ordinance attached," the councilmen wrote.

The lawmakers urged the planning department to team up with City Atty. Mike Feuer and finish work on a draft ordinance as soon as possible.

Local lawmakers and environmental groups that backed the ban argued that such practices could taint water or stimulate earthquake activity. Oil and gas companies contend they are safe, proven ways to produce more energy and create jobs.

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