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The Fuss About Fracking

Environmentalists in Oakland, CA Source: Beck Diefenbach, AP, September 13, 2013
Environmentalists in Oakland, CA
Source: Beck Diefenbach/AP, September 13, 2013

If you enjoy drinking clean water and breathing clean air, you should know about fracking. Fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to break open reservoir rock and allow the oil and natural gas within to escape. Toxic waste, air pollution, public health issues, increased earthquake risk, climate destabilization via methane release, and groundwater contamination are among the many reasons Californians should be outraged at the proliferation of fracking throughout the state.

Federal policy development in the early 2000s paved the way for the expansion of fracking in California. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that hydraulic fracturing did not pose any danger to underground drinking water resources. Soon after, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Proponents of the practice claim that fracking is key to unlocking domestic natural gas supply, which should increase US energy security, boost local economies, and produce clean, affordable fuel.

Monterey Shale Formation Source: Doug Stevens, LA Times Graphics
Monterey Shale Formation
Source: Doug Stevens, LA Times Graphics

Home to about two thirds of the country’s shale oil supply, California is a hotspot for companies seeking profitable sites to frack. The Monterey shale formation stretches 1,750 square miles from the Bay Area through Los Angeles, and off the coast to outlying islands. Estimates of removable natural gas stored in Monterey shale reach up to 13.7 billion barrels. However, the US Energy Administration (EA) recently slashed that projection by 96 percent, confirming that just 600 million barrels could be extracted using current technology (which includes acid treatments, horizontal drilling, and fracking). John Staub, petroleum exploration and production analyst who led the EA’s research, said that the agency has “not seen evidence that oil extraction in this area is very productive using techniques like fracking.” Staub explained that the former, flawed predictions and estimates could be attributed to “a dearth of knowledge about geological differences among the oil fields” throughout the US.

Despite this setback for the oil industry, “it is way too early to say that this is the death of fracking in California,” according to Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute. As oil companies invest millions of dollars in technology to circumvent the geological challenges associated with extracting from Monterey shale, fracking will continue to spread across the state. Therefore it is important to consider the environmental implications of such an aggressive and resource-intensive extraction process. To reiterate: fracking is the high-pressure injection of a mixture of fluids and chemical propping agents into reservoir rock, which fractures the rock and leaves underground vertical cracks through which oil and natural gas can flow out. Chemical proppants keep the vertical fractures open long after the waste fluid, known as flowback, is removed.

Flowback is a major concern for environmentalists and the general public alike. On October 6, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) obtained state documents revealing that nearly three billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into California aquifers. High concentrations of thallium, arsenic, and nitrates were discovered in water-supply wells close to wastewater-injection wells, which are used by the oil industry to dispose of fracking fluid and other contaminants. These aquifers, protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act, should provide Californians with clean drinking water and farming irrigation. Due to the expansion of fracking throughout the state, 1,552 active wastewater-injection wells are compromising the quality of that water.

This comes as no surprise after a federally commissioned report released in August determined that fracking in California happens at much shallower depths than previously realized. The report concluded that half the oil wells fracked in California are within 2,000 feet of the surface and close to aquifers. Vertical fractures through which oil and gas flow can extend up to 1,969 feet, allowing toxic fracking fluid to leach into drinking water. To give these numbers some context: most fracking occurs in Kern County, where drinking water wells lie just 600-800 feet below the surface.

The contamination of key aquifers with carcinogenic pollutants is happening during the worst recorded drought in California’s history. Not only does flowback pollute drinking water sources, but the process of fracking itself requires large amounts of clean water. It is difficult to pinpoint just how much clean water fracking usurps, but voluntary data from oil companies points to an average of 166,700 gallons of freshwater per fracked well. The true amount is likely greater than that reported by oil companies. To add insult to injury, the vast majority of oil and gas wells—96 percent—are located in areas experiencing severe water shortages.

In addition to using vast amounts of California’s scarce water supply and contaminating groundwater, fracking is also tied to air pollution, ocean dumping, and increased earthquake risk. Offshore fracking, mostly occurring in southern California, threatens coastal communities with hazardous air pollution. Further, oil platforms are permitted to dump nine billion gallons of wastewater, including fracking chemicals, into the ocean annually. At least ten of the most commonly used  chemicals endanger a plethora of marine species, including fish and sea otters. Lastly, it is gravely concerning that all of Southern California’s offshore wastewater-injection wells are within three miles of an active fault, because injecting fracking wastewater underground induces earthquakes.

Fracking near McKittrick, CA Source: David McNew, Getty Images, March 23, 2014
Fracking near McKittrick, California.
Source: David McNew/Getty Images, March 23, 2014

And yet, fracking enthusiasts (read: oil companies) still argue the extraction process will serve as a tool for bolstering domestic energy security. The state legislature still supports fracking and responded to growing public concern with Senate Bill (SB) 4 in 2013. This law requires oil companies to submit public notices, notify local communities, and offer to do groundwater testing before fracking a well. Also, within 60 days, the companies must provide to regulators (from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)) the amount of water used and chemicals involved in their fracking process. It sounds promising, but some oil companies have submitted incomplete reports to DOGGR, while others have failed to provide any information to the regulators. Further, DOGGR has struggled to post fracking information online in a timely manner, and claims they are short-staffed to process the reports.

Whether or not oil companies meet the requirements of SB 4, California simply does not have enough water resources to support fracking for oil and gas, especially during the third year of this historic drought. Until oil companies can eliminate marine dumping, drinking water contamination, air pollution, earthquake triggering, and public health issues, fracking should be banned in California.

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