Just last fall, the oil industry in California spent a good chunk of its considerable political money to try to defeat Democratic Sen. Fran Pavley in her toss-up district that includes portions of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Pavley is the mother of the landmark California law that ultimately forced the U.S. auto industry to get serious about improving fuel efficiency and was co-author of the state law mandating a rollback in carbon dioxide emissions.

She is a results-oriented lawmaker with a passion for environmental issues, and some in the industry must have reasoned that she was no friend of theirs.

She won the election and now, seven months later, circumstances have changed.

The industry is trying to fight back efforts in the Legislature to halt the oil-drilling practice known as fracking, and Pavley has emerged as its potential savior.

Pavley hasn't changed her stripes. She has deep concerns about fracking. But she is a realist, and wants to steer a bill through the Legislature that will both address growing public concerns and also earn the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, who is not likely to support an outright ban.

That separates her from several of her colleagues, who are proposing to shut down fracking in California indefinitely.

So, last week, there was lobbyist Theo Pahos from the California Independent Petroleum Association telling members of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee that among the bills dealing with fracking, Pavley's "is by far, in our opinion, the most reasonable."


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In fact, he said, "a lot of stuff in this bill is commendable."

Lobbyist Paul Deiro of the Western States Petroleum Association told the committee that he sincerely hopes Pavley, industry representatives and other concerned parties can get together with Brown's advisers to work out "a comprehensive regulatory structure."

As for Pavley, Deiro said, "We share her passion on this issue."

Until this year, the industry has underestimated the public's passion. It is awakening late to the realization that Californians aren't comfortable with the fact that there are no requirements that oil drillers tell anyone when or where they are going to employ a practice that involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals under extremely high pressure deep into the earth, sometimes passing through drinking-water aquifers along the way.

Last year, Pavley authored a modest bill that would have required only that well operators notify neighboring property owners in advance when fracking was going to take place. The industry pulled out all its lobbying stops, and the bill was defeated.

But things were moving fast. The documentary "Gasland," a film that raises safety questions about fracking, aired on HBO. Matt Damon's "Promised Land," a dramatic production, followed. A Public Policy Institute of California poll showed that among those Californians who were at all familiar with fracking, a plurality was opposed.

The issue shot quickly to, or near, the top of the agenda of environmental activists in California.

The momentum to stop fracking comes at the same time that its use has become of critical importance to oil production in California. There are an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil embedded in the Monterey Shale formation that could soon become recoverable thanks to modern drilling technology.

As an industry expert told me this spring, "Shale does not give up the oil in large volumes without hydraulic fracturing."

There is the potential here for a collision course, a policy debate that could degrade into one of those stomp-your-feet fights in which the combatants seek to paint the options as either killing jobs or poisoning the drinking water.

There is a middle ground. The smart people in the industry realize they need to find it, and Pavley seems to be the one who is seeking it out.

Her bill would require notification, disclosure, permitting and groundwater monitoring. Like the others, it also would require a scientific study. The bill would not shut down fracking until the study is done, but it would suspend the issuance of permits if the study is not completed by Jan. 1, 2015.

What's needed here is a sensible regulatory scheme that will address real concerns about potential water and air pollution and also ease public fears by making transparent a process that until now has been conducted without regulation and in secrecy.

The oil industry gets that, and is now embracing the kind of regulation that it until recently resisted.

What the industry needs to get that done, and to stave off political overreaction, is for a results-oriented lawmaker with credibility in the environmental community to help orchestrate a solution.