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California lawmakers take steps to regulate ‘fracking’

By Karoline Flaam | 15 May 2012

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A natural gas drilling process called "fracking" is catching the attention of California lawmakers. The practice can contaminate groundwater. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user CalWest)

In many states, it is the source of much heated debate and controversy. In California, not so much. Here, the process of “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing – a drilling method in which chemical-laced water and sand is injected into the ground to release natural gas and oil – has been going on completely unregulated for decades.

“We don’t know how much fracking is going on in California – and we can’t know. No one is looking, tracking, regulating, monitoring or reporting on fracking in the state,” said Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs in the non-profit research organization Environmental Working Group.

But according to the organization’s a recent report, fracking is in fact widespread across the state. In at least six California counties – Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Ventura – it has been going on for decades, often without the consent or even knowledge of local residents. The exact number of fracked wells in the state is unknown, but according to the report, it “likely reaches into the thousands.” Industry documents show that by the mid-1990s, more than 600 wells had been fracked in one Kern County oil field alone.

Should Californians care? Several environmental concerns have been raised in connection to fracking. In December 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that chemicals used in fracking in Wyoming had leaked into the ground water. (The conclusion came after local well owners complained about strange taste and odor of the ground water, and the EPA launched an investigation.)

Moreover, many of the chemicals that are commonly used in the fracking process are toxic, according to an overview done by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Some are also known carcinogens and reproductive toxins, such as formaldehyde, benzene and ethylbenzene.

Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, who was part of the Secretary of Energy’s seven-person advisory group on the issue, has also raised concerns. The group, which was assigned to make recommendations “to improve the safety and environmental performance” of fracking, advised, among other things, that all the chemicals involved in the activity should be disclosed and that well-by-well data should be posted on publicly available websites. The group also raised concerns with the issue of wastewater. On its way back up from the well, the injected water can pick up naturally occurring contaminants, including selenium, arsenic, salt and radioactive particles. Disposing of this fluid in a safe manner is critical, and “a serious regulatory problem,” Zoback recently told The Stanford Report.

Whereas California has long taken a passive stance on the issue, other states have chosen a different route.

On April 1, Colorado enacted what has been described as the country’s toughest rules on fracking. The state requires full disclosure of all the chemicals that are used – both content and concentrations. Also other aspects of the process are closely regulated, including where the companies can drill, how they drill, how the well must be constructed and how the fracking must be monitored. “These are the toughest fracking rules in the country,” said Tisha Conoly Schuller, president of the industry group Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

On 12 April, the state took another step to strengthen its drilling regulations, adopting coordinating measures so that the new regulations can be enforced more smoothly between the state and local levels. This will ensure that “the concerns of local citizens” are taken into account, explained Todd Hartman at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Now, however, some changes may be on the horizon also in California. This month, California lawmakers agreed to increase the size of the state’s oil and gas agency — with the condition that regulators finally draft rules for hydraulic fracturing. A series of public workshops will now be held on the issue, starting this week in Bakersfield (a tentative schedule for the workshops can be found here), and draft regulations are set to be released this fall, according to The LA Times.

“We have been, unfortunately, lax,” said Mark Nechodom, director of the Department of Conservation, according to the article. “We spent 25 years essentially kind of watching things go by without scrutiny that currently we understand that we really need to have, and we’re trying to catch up.”

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