By Vic Bedoian
Environmental groups are suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the leasing of federal lands in Monterey and Fresno counties for fossil fuel development. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, trying to force the BLM to do a more thorough environmental study. Their major concern is the potential use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” in a major oil-bearing formation in central California.
Fracking is a controversial process that injects water mixed with chemicals into the earth’s strata to propagate fractures in the rock in order to more effectively extract oil and natural gas. Fracking has been associated with contaminated underground water, atmospheric emission of methane gas and generating large amounts of wastewater. There have also been widespread complaints about numerous, and serious, health ailments for residents living near gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, as well as other states.
That’s not the only danger. Earthquakes, like the recent 5.6 event centered in Oklahoma that was felt in Illinois, have further cast suspicions over the safety of the technology. The quakes were centered in areas of intensive oil and gas production. At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, injecting fluids was stopped after a series of tremors. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded there is a connection between injecting fluids deep into the earth and increased seismic activity.
With the Obama administration encouraging more domestic production of oil and gas, the leasing of federal land in Central California’s Coast Range may be a harbinger of increased fossil fuel development on the horizon. Industry has its eyes on the prize. Environmental groups want the BLM to take a deeper look at the possible consequences in Fresno and Monterey counties. They’re especially concerned about the potential for the increased use of hydraulic fracturing.
The BLM’s environmental analysis found that petroleum production would have no significant negative impact in the area. The land is currently rangeland for animal grazing and is habitat to endangered fauna like the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the California condor.
Kassie Siegel is with the Center for Biological Diversity. She thinks the BLM should have done a full-scale environmental investigation before allowing the leases to go forward, “These areas are, especially in Monterey County, extremely sensitive watershed areas and one of the areas leased is actually on a ridge right up above Lake San Antonio, a reservoir near very important streams and watersheds. What the BLM has said is well we don’t expect there to be any problem, and if there is we’ll analyze it and deal with it later.”
The reason for all this attention is the Monterey Shale formation, stretching from Central California to Los Angeles, which is estimated to contain 15 and a half billion barrels of oil. The formation is not seen by the industry as a source of natural gas. The state’s natural gas deposits reside mainly in the sand formations underlying the Sacramento Valley. The BLM’s environmental review says that there is little likelihood fracking will be used in the contested parcels. That assessment is backed up by Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Association. He says it’s an infrequently used technology in the state and doesn’t foresee it being utilized in the Monterey Shale, “Our understanding from our members and others is that hydraulic fracturing is not an effective technology for producing that resource at commercial scale because certainly hydraulic fracturing is a more costly way to produce oil or natural gas.”
The few fracking operations that do occur in California mostly take place in the oil fields of Kern County. Nevertheless, concerns persist about the expanded use of hydraulic fracturing elsewhere in the state. Siegel says there are a lot of unknowns, including studies showing increased earthquake risk and documented cases of environmental contamination, “The Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, doesn’t track fracking or the chemicals used. This is a huge problem, obviously, and it’s one of the reasons why we think it’s absurd that the BLM would go ahead and sell these areas without any meaningful environmental review.”
Recognizing the public concern, Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski (D‒Fremont) introduced a bill last year that would require operators to disclose information about fracking operations to the public and to state regulators, “Fracking is done by, mostly it’s done by companies like Halliburton or these other folks where they come in and do the injection. They would disclose within 30 days after they do the frack, what chemicals were in there, what was the water content.”
Drilling information is currently made available voluntarily by the industry on a Web site called Frac Focus. Tupper Hall agrees that public disclosure is necessary. One sticking point for the oil industry is divulging trade secrets of the chemical recipes used in the fracking fluids, which consist of 99.5% water mixed with chemicals and sand.
Although the oil industry officially opposes the bill, Assembly Member Wieckowski says it has cooperated in providing information toward rules requiring transparency, “Over the past year since I introduced it and what’s going on in Colorado and other states, Gasland and the whole phenomenon in 2011, they realized they just can’t keep it secret and not do anything. So there is a switch, however reluctantly, to provide the information about the toxic and hazardous materials they are using.”
Not surprisingly, industry spokesperson Tupper Hull thinks the way fracking was portrayed in the film Gasland, which chronicled eco-disasters attributed to the practice, is not accurate. He says fracking is highly regulated and has been used in the state for more than 40 years without incident, “There’s no evidence and never been any claims made that hydraulic fracturing has posed a risk to the environment of residents of California. So, obviously, there are many people concerned, but we believe that the record and the experience here strongly suggest it’s a safe practice. It’s a pretty well understood technology and one that people should have confidence it’s being conducted in a safe manner.” Hull emphasizes that people have benefited from this technology whether they realize it or not, stressing that the nation now has a natural gas supply well into the distant future that no one anticipated having just a few years ago.
With growing interest in fracking nationally and potentially in California, Siegel believes extreme caution is the best approach to future fossil fuel production, “I think the bottom line is that the risks are not fully understood and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has now admitted, you know the EPA is doing this big national process of review of fracking risks nationally. They admit that we simply don’t have all the information we need, and that’s why we have called for a national moratorium of fracking until we have the information that we need to assess the risks.”
It’s too early to tell how much a role fracking will play in California, but it begs the larger question of vastly increased oil and gas development in the state. Even without fracking, Siegel believes the BLM’s environmental review is inadequate because it understates the risks from surface oil spills, air pollution and other impacts that could damage the environment.
As the quest for fossil fuel intensifies, the lure of petrodollars may be hard to resist. Federal land managers and ranchers all along the Coast Range that sits atop the Monterey Shale will be faced with tough choices. In other regions of the nation, hard-put farmers trying to eke out a living on the land have chosen to place their bets on the oil and gas beneath it. For many of them, it’s been a welcome windfall. But many others, and their neighbors, are now reaping unwelcome rewards. It remains to be seen if Californians will be will be attracted by the siren song of Black Gold.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.