Fracking Oil Industry Sharpening Bits 
Among Many Concerns

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor, and Laurie Greene, Associate Editor

The oil industry is snapping up speculative mineral leases across what’s known as the Monterey Shale, an area that includes vast agricultural, yet water-scarce regions in the San Joaquin Valley, offshore the central coast, the coastal range and areas in Los Angeles County. 

The oil industry is snapping up speculative mineral leases across what’s known as the Monterey Shale, an area that includes vast agricultural, yet water-scarce regions in the San Joaquin Valley, offshore the central coast, the coastal range and areas in Los Angeles County.

According to Don Clarke, an LA-based geologist, “Drillers have to move a lot of fluid for fracking. With conservation and economics in mind, regulations will require that used water and chemicals will be saved [for reuse] by building large tanks or by scheduling fracking so when one job stops, another begins.”

“Oil companies are trying to determine how to get the Monterey Shale oil economically,” noted Clarke. “Unknown geologic and other complex issues could necessitate a $25 million investment for the first bore, with no guarantees of success. But in any case, oil companies will most likely not have the technology needed to drill for the oil until 2015.”

Yet, California is reeling from droughts and environmental pressures that resulted in the biological opinion-derived diversion of 1 million acre-feet of water from the Delta to protect fish species. The resulting water deficit has severely impacted Central Valley farmers, stressing their ground water supplies already hurting from this year’s 80 percent water-delivery deficit, and requiring supplemental pumping that over-drafts wells. Furthermore, Bureau of Reclamation officials warn that Westlands Water District farmers may face a zero allocation next year.

After irrigation, environmental projects, and the state’s municipalities take their necessary water, there is very little water left, except what’s in storage. “The amount of water needed could be a deal-killer and the cost of water being pulled from agriculture would not be sustainable for oil companies,” Clarke said. “Possibly the only way to do this without impacting farmers is to use ocean water that is deeply trapped in the ground for fracking.”

Farmers are listening but are not overly concerned. Joe Del Bosque, who farms in Firebaugh and Huron, is a Governor Brown-appointed member of the California Water Commission. Del Bosque said, “I am certain that oil companies will not take water away from farms and cities or harm the water supply of the state. I have not heard any farmers voice concerns. In fact, it’s my understanding that the drilling is down so deep, it will not effect anyone.”

Don Drysdale, from the Public Affairs Office with California Department of Conservation (CA DOC), stated that in most cases, “hydraulic fracturing is going after resources hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below the water table, and there are natural geologic barriers as well as construction standards protecting the groundwater.”

In terms of benefits, a University of California (UC) report projects oil drilling in the Monterey Shale area will produce one half-million new jobs by 2015 and 2.8 million by 2020, and as much as $24.6 billion in state and local taxes.

Manuel Cunha, President of the Nisei Farmer’s League in Fresno, said, “The opponents of fracking say that it will destroy air and water quality and will hurt people—which is all wrong. Since the start of 2011, 974 California wells have been fracked, many in the southern San Joaquin Valley with no contamination to drinking water.”

Nevertheless, the Sierra Club and other opposition groups maintain that fracking would risk disaster for California’s wild lands, water and air quality, and wildlife. These groups have filed formal protests and suits against the U.S. Bureau of Land (BLM). On May 7, 2013, the BLM postponed all oil and gas lease sales on California public lands for the rest of the fiscal year; however, private land leases are still up for grabs.

In response, the CA DOC is conducting public meetings for input as it creates hydraulic fracturing regulations. The first regulation draft is due this summer and will include disclosure requirements and rigorous testing and evaluation before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing operations to ensure that wells and geologic formations remain competent and that drinking water is uncontaminated. Some of the proposed requirements will surpass those of any other state.

In addition to regulation, legislation for hydraulic fracturing is developing that would define the terms of hydraulic fracturing and hydraulic fracturing fluid and require the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency to mandate an independent scientific study on hydraulic fracturing treatments to be completed on or before Jan. 1 2015. Violators would incur a civil penalty of $10,000 to $25,000 per day, per violation; however the bill has gained little support thus far.

Dave Quast, Director of California Energy in Depth (EID), said, “We have never experienced the negative environmental impact that extreme activists are prophesizing. Hydraulic fracturing is a regulated activity and is becoming more regulated. It’s a proven technology that has been used in California for more than six decades and, hopefully, the public will become more reassured as the process moves along.”

As we embark on the proposition of fracking in California, we can be certain of a healthy debate, and we will hope for a science-based decision.

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