At Fault: When Will California Regulate Fracking?

There's nothing mysterious about the appeal of hydraulic fracturing, the earth-shaking technique that cracks open deep, tight shale formations to release trapped oil and gas. It makes a lot of money -- for the companies who are involved in the production processes, for those lucky enough to own the mineral rights that lie beneath their property. Anecdotes abound of immense profits being wrung from this facet of the energy business and of instant multi-millionaires in formerly cash-strapped parts of south Texas, central Pennsylvania, and North Dakota.

These narratives of Capitalism Triumphant make for good copy. No less compelling is the inverse: that this boom will crash (as is already beginning to occur in some places), and that when the bust comes the very communities that seem to be benefiting the most from the Eagle Ford Play in the Lone Star State, the Marcellus in the Keystone State, or the Baaken Formation in the Peace Garden State will be in serious trouble. This narration comes with an accompanying I-told-you-so proverb, especially relevant to those living in these once-hardscrabble agricultural regions: you reap what you sow.

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Assemblyman Richard Bloom is among those hoping to fend off such a harrowing harvest in California. Although he represents a pretty tony district, the 50th, stretching from Malibu to Hollywood and encompassing the gilded communities of Brentwood, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills, and a constituency that is nicely insulated from the state's oil-and-gas patch, in late February he submitted legislation to prohibit fracking operations. Until, that is, "the Legislature enacts subsequent legislation that determines whether and under what conditions hydraulic fracturing may be conducted." His bill, AB 1301, cleared the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee late last week.

The central thrust of his legislative initiative is to "protect the public health and safety and the natural resources of the state." It would also stay in effect until the Natural Resources Agency and the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which is responsible for providing oil and gas well permits, develops the necessary regulatory framework to assess, monitor, and control fracking in the Golden State.

What is of considerable concern to Bloom and his colleagues Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City), Adrin Nazarian (D-East Fernando Valley), and Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) -- each of whom also has had fracking legislation that has cleared the relevant committees -- is that no one knows the extent to which this technology is being employed in California. "State regulators have little knowledge of what chemicals have been used," Bloom observes, they "cannot notify people if fracking is occurring in their communities, and are unable to determine if fracking is polluting groundwater or impacting air quality."

This lack of knowledge is disconcerting because of the experience of other states with fracking's deleterious impact on air and water quality. The latter is especially concerning in the oft-arid west: In Webb County, Texas, for instance, "some researchers estimate that the amount of water used for fracking represents as much as one-third of the area's annual groundwater recharge, the amount of surface water that percolates back to the underground aquifer supplying the region."

Add to those hidden costs the unmistakably potholed road systems that come with dangerous, high-speed trucks pounding back roads and farm-to-market arterials, a transportation grid ill-equipped to handle the damaging volume of traffic and resulting collisions and overturns (some south Texas counties have seen ten times the number of commercial vehicle accidents since 2008).

Fracking's association with earthquakes is also driving the need for effective legislation, a reasonable response in a landscape with as much seismic activity as California endures. Although the industry routinely dismisses claims that its operations can trigger active faults or reactivate dormant ones, and brushes aside research indicating that its waste-water injection wells contribute to increased seismic activity, its casual disregard for a growing scientific literature just got harder to maintain.

At the mid-April meeting of the Seismological Society of America, researchers from the USGS presented a number of papers that establish a decisive link between the use of waste-water injection wells and the rapid rise in the numbers of temblors rocking the Raton Basin that runs from northeastern New Mexico through southern Colorado. Noting that there have been twenty times the number of magnitude-3 or larger quakes between 2001 and 2011 than had occurred in the preceding three decades, the largest of which was a 5.3 temblor in 2011, Justin Rubinstein, a USGS geophysicist, asked: "Can this rate of change be natural? I certainly don't think so."

Accelerating anxiety in the Golden State are reports that prospecting firms are scrutinizing the Monterey Shale deposit, a geological formation that extends from northern California to the Southland and which the industry estimates to contain "two-thirds of all the known recoverable
oil in the continental United States." Fracking is already being conducted within this play, the New York Times reported in February, and there has been a spike in the number of bidders for leases on federal land and the prices they are paying for them. "Some of that has to do with speculation on new technologies," a Bureau of Land Management agent said, "and some of that has to do with the high price of oil."

This evidence adds urgency to the demand for state action. But with a governor who seems unwilling to step up, and a set of regulatory agencies that have not yet announced a clear-cut set of rules to control the impact of hydraulic fracturing on public health and the environment, the legislature must take the lead.

On April 9, it began to do so, when Senator Pavley's bill, SB 4 cleared the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. The senator considers her legislation a "compromise" bill, largely because it does not shut down fracking operations but rather requires the state's Natural Resources Agency to complete a scientific study of the technology's ramifications by 2015; if it fails to do so, then a moratorium will kick in.

Assemblyman Bloom, by contrast, is convinced that an immediate moratorium is essential.

"We need a reality check," the Santa Monica Democrat asserts. "There is no requirement for the regulatory process to be completed by next spring and given the snail's pace to date, the likely concern of environmentalists, and opposition from drilling interests, I have little confidence in the State's ability to stick to its timeline." Only the passage of a tough-love prohibition embedded in AB 1301 "will incentivize all stakeholders to address the public health, safety, and environmental hazards that fracking poses to California."

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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