News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

New Fracking Law Regulates Injecting Acid Into Ground

New regs for pumpiing this kind of thing into the ground in California | Photo: Ben Cooper/Flickr/Creative Commons License

ReWire goofed in our recent assessment of SB 4, the fracking regulation bill written by State Senator Fran Pavley that was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown September 20.

The law has been criticized by both environmental groups and the fossil fuel industry, and we added to that criticism in our piece last week -- but in doing so, we made a technical error that bears correcting.

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In our September 20 piece, we identified five things we had determined the fracking regulation bill would do. Here's what we placed at number five on that list:

5. SB 4 formalizes what critics claim have been violations of environmental law by DOGGR [the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.] The Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, Environmental Working Group, and Sierra Club recently sued DOGGR for allegedly failing to conduct proper environmental review of fracking projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires a thorough environmental assessment process of projects that might damage the environment and public health. Under SB 4, DOGGR would be able to set "threshold levels" of chemical use in fracking projects that would trigger CEQA review. If projects don't meet that threshold, projects can proceed without CEQA scrutiny.

This turns out not to be precisely the case, and the problem lies in the definition of the word "fracking."

"Fracking" is a shortened version of the phrase "hydraulic fracturing." In the strictest sense, the process refers to injecting high-pressure fluids into geological formations to break up the rock layers, allowing fossil fuel well drillers to extract more oil and gas more easily. Fracking often involves adding chemicals and other substances to that fluid that either aid in breaking up the rock or keep the broken rock from sealing back up again.

The threshold levels SB 4 allows DOGGR to set, as we referred to in our previous post, actually apply to a similar but distinct process called "acidizing." In acidizing, fluids are also injected into a reservoir to break up the rock, which -- as with fracking -- allows gas and oil to flow more freely toward the pump. But unlike fracking in the strict sense, acidizing is conducted at lower pressures and uses chemical action rather than physical pressure to make holes in that subsurface rock.

Well operators often add acidic chemicals to their wells as a preventive maintenance measure to retard corrosion in their equipment and clean out pipelines, and the line between using acids for that purpose and using more of them to enhance well output is hard to determine.

The "threshold levels" DOGGR will be able to set under SB 4 will, in theory, distinguish between those two uses. Given that DOGGR has long come under fire for lax regulation of fracking projects, critics can be excused for wondering whether those thresholds will be set properly.

But given that acidizing was largely unregulated in California before SB 4 was passed, the law actually mandates that DOGGR do something that it wasn't doing before. Which means ReWire's assertion that that part of the law enabled DOGGR's previous alleged lax regulation is not true. A cynic might say that acidizing threshold levels provision extends DOGGR's potential for lax regulation into new areas, but it's hard to fault the intent on Pavley's part to regulate a previously unregulated practice.

Especially since the strictly defined difference between fracking and acidizing might not make all that much difference to those who use the neighboring groundwater. When you've got stuff other than water coming out of your tap, it might not matter all that much to you whether it got there via fracking or acidizing.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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