Fracking is the “Latest Cause of Silly People” and is Great for the Economy!

Early drilling operations in Baldwin Hills (photo courtesy of L.A. Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2008/10/theres-been-muc.html)

I cannot pretend to be an expert on fracking. Not even close. Yet, I can’t help the feeling that drilling thousands of feet into the earth, pumping millions of gallons of chemical-laden water — with many of the chemicals being known carcinogens — multiple times over several days into the ground in earthquake fault zones can’t be great for the environment. Even if that makes me a silly person.

Thankfully, there are many that know much better than I, and they seem to be in agreement that, indeed, fracking is not all it is cracked up to be. A two-year study of earthquake activity triggered by drilling in Dallas by University of Texas researcher Cliff Frolich, for example, claimed its most significant finding to be “that all of the better-located [earthquake] epicenters were situated within a few kilometers of one or more injection wells.” And that “this is important because it suggests that small triggered earthquakes, magnitude about 2 and smaller, occur more often than reported previously. Most of these wells associated with earthquakes were not suspected of triggering earthquakes prior to this study.”

His findings confirmed those of a two-year study conducted in the Horn River Basin in Canada that found anomalous low-level seismic activity “were caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing in proximity to pre-existing [earthquake] faults.”*

While Frolich could not explain why some injection wells in the shale around Dallas triggered earthquakes and others did not, he made clear that better research is necessary to build a better understanding of the link between fracking and seismic activity. Currently, he wrote,

Most investigations of induced or triggered earthquakes take place only after an earthquake occurs that is severe enough to be felt by nearby residents and receive media attention. Such events usually have magnitudes of approximately 3 or greater and occur in populated areas. Limiting research only to these events [reported by the public or the National Earthquake Information Center] doesn’t help us understand why some injection wells trigger seismic activity and others do not. I am unaware of any previous investigation comparing the properties of injection wells that do and do not induce earthquakes.

Meanwhile, a 2011 draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indicated that synthetic chemicals, including glycols and alcohols used in gas production and fracking, concentrations of benzene that were well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards, and high levels of methane, had contaminated an aquifer in Wyoming. While the contaminants had not significantly affected public and private wells — contaminants were detected but in low enough levels to still meet safe standards — the EPA did express concern about the ability of the contaminants to migrate and eventually impact those wells.

Industry leaders, on the other hand, continue to deny that fracking is harmful.

PXP’s study of its own fracking activities in the Inglewood Oil Field concluded that — surprise! — fracking is totally safe. Air quality is not an issue and nor is ground movement, despite the number of residents from Baldwin Hills that have come forward to speak about how the foundations of their homes are cracking.

Furthermore, industry leaders claim, fracking has never once been proven to impact water supplies. According to the organizers at “Save Colorado From Fracking,” however, that may only be because the industry considers “fracking” to be limited to the injection of fluid alone, while the public considers “fracking” to entail the entire process of drilling a well for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing.

Despite the mounting evidence calling the practice into question, a few days ago, Governor Jerry Brown suggested that California should look at fracking as a way to develop its massive oil reserves, currently locked in the Monterey Shale, as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The U.S. Energy Department estimates the shale could contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil — the equivalent of approximately 64 percent of the U.S.’ total shale oil resources.

Fracking in the shale could also lead to a massive economic boom, a new report from USC and the Communications Institute, has found. By 2015, the study claims, oil-related tax revenues could top $4.5 billion and $24.6 billion by 2020, generating as many as 500,000 new jobs — both within the industry and because of the services the new workforce would require (food, clothing, housing, supplies, etc.) — in the next two years and 2.8 million jobs by 2020.

Not everyone is so impressed by these projections. Steve Horn, a Research Fellow with desmogblog, is concerned that the report was funded, in large part, by the oil and gas industry and written by people who have close ties with it.

Regardless of who was behind the lofty projections, the fact is that California is still struggling to get a handle on what regulations are needed to monitor the practice in the first place. Last year, bills seeking disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking and tighter oversight of the practice were watered down and eventually killed. Worse still, a recent EPA audit found that the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) was not currently doing enough to protect ground water as it is.

In response to public concerns about fracking, DOGGR — the agency tasked with overseeing oil and gas drilling operations in California — has finally drafted regulations to govern the practice. It wasn’t something they had originally wanted to take on. At a meeting in Baldwin Hills last year, they backed away from the idea of being responsible for deciding which terms they should be holding the industry accountable to.

This may be the reason that DOGGR’s recent tour of California to solicit public comment on the draft regulations has been both brief and somewhat hush-hush. One was held here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, but I found out about it too late to be able to attend. And, apparently, they aren’t coming back here to revisit this version of the draft any time soon. They will, however, be holding a workshop in Sacramento next week — the last stop of the tour (you can also find the workshop, the text of the draft regulations, and how to send in your comments here).
****

While the first stab at regulations is of questionable merit, it is better than nothing.

Crazy as it sounds, there currently are none. That’s right. None.

Although a common practice for decades, oil companies have never been required to notify DOGGR of where they were fracking. The new regulations would address this oversight and include provisions for pre-fracturing well testing, advance notification of fracturing plans, monitoring during and after fracturing operations, and disclosure of materials used in fracturing fluid, trade secrets, and storage and handling of hydraulic fracturing fluids.

And, even though John Stossel at Fox News considers the stopping of fracking to be “the latest cause of silly people” and Jerry Brown has fired regulators seen to be slowing down the ability of oil companies to get drilling permits, California lawmakers appear determined to get a handle on the practice. At least eight bills are currently in the works to regulate or tax the industry’s expansion, says the Associated Press.

They better work fast.

At the December federal auction by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Sacramento, energy representatives snapped up 18,ooo acres of land in the Monterey Shale for exploratory drilling in the first 10 minutes of bidding. Given the challenges of reaching the oil locked deep in the shale, oil and gas companies are operating on the expectation that it is only a matter of time before they can begin fracking.

And while Fox’s Stossel may believe that “Nothing is completely risk-free. Companies make mistakes. Chemical spills happen…Th[ose risks] are also far preferable to the risk of paying more for energy — thereby killing opportunities for the poor,” it does seem that we might benefit from a little oversight of oil and gas companies and more understanding of the practice. And, when you figure in things like the potential contamination of water supplies in a drought-prone state, I’m guessing that we (and, yes, even the poor) might come to a different conclusion about the costs and benefits of fracking.

Would you like to learn more about fracking happening in Los Angeles? Check out the website for the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District or attend one of their monthly meetings.

*Thanks to Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community for pointing me to this study.

  • kevbot

    I don’t think your fact “The U.S. Energy Department estimates the shale could contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil — the equivalent of approximately 64 percent of the U.S.’ total shale oil resources” is correct.

    One source I found says “Oil shale is prevalent in the western states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The resource potential of these shales is estimated to be the equivalent of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place.” (CRS Report for Congress, 2006). Perhaps closer to 6.4% would be more accurate.

  • sahra

    You raise an interesting point. I saw that, but also saw a report by the Energy Info. Agency noting that the shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming indeed held the largest reserves in the world, but the feasibility of their ability to be recovered was apparently in question:

    “Although its proven crude oil reserves account for only about 3 percent
    of the U.S. total, Wyoming has enormous deposits of oil shale rock,
    known as marlstone, which can be converted into crude oil through a
    process called destructive distillation. The Green River Formation, a
    group of basins in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, contains the largest
    known oil shale deposits in the world. Wyoming’s oil shale deposits,
    concentrated in the Green River and Washakie Basins in the southwestern
    part of the State, contain an estimated 300 billion barrels of oil,
    equal to about one-fourth of the world’s proven oil reserves. Although
    this natural resource holds tremendous promise, oil shale development
    remains speculative and faces several major obstacles involving
    technological feasibility, economic viability, resource ownership, and
    environmental considerations. Wyoming’s oil shale deposits are less
    favorable for commercial extraction than those in Utah and Colorado
    because they are generally situated in thinner, less continuous layers.” (source: http://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.cfm?sid=WY&CFID=10277722&CFTOKEN=69ab6716225be159-8CFECA19-25B3-1C83-549371039D561245&jsessionid=84305e06ede6105453dc59157d6c2d5252f2)

    And I took that information about the 64% from a different report by the same US Energy Information Agency:

    “Table 1 also summarizes the INTEK shale report’s assessment of technically recoverable shale oil resources, which amount to 23.9 billion barrels in the onshore Lower 48 States. The largest shale oil formation is the Monterey/Santos play in southern California, which is estimated to hold 15.4 billion barrels or 64 percent of the total shale oil resources shown in Table 1. The Monterey shale play is the primary source rock for the conventional oil reservoirs found in the Santa Maria and San Joaquin Basins in southern California.4 The next largest shale oil plays are the Bakken and Eagle Ford, which are assessed to hold approximately 3.6 billion barrels and 3.4 billion barrels of oil, respectively.” (source: http://www.eia.gov/analysis/studies/usshalegas/)

    So, I guess the key was recoverability? Thanks for asking.

  • Anonymous

    The difference here is “shale oil” versus “tight oil”. The “oil shale” the commenter refers to is shale that contains kerogen, a substance that can be processed into oil – kind of like the tar sands in Alberta.

    “Tight oil” is the stuff that is being fracked. It is oil, not kerogen or bitumen. It is oil contained in low porosity rock formations, often shale. So confusingly, it is often called “shale oil” but it is a fundamentally different substance. The stuff in the formations in Wyoming et al cannot be extracted by fracking like the Bakken or Marcellus formations. It is extracted like the tar sands – either by mining, crushing, and heating the rock, or by heating and chemically altering the material in situ and then pumping it out.

    Either way, the fact that fracking continues with minimal oversight, while projects like Westside Subway are taken to the rack by “environmental review”, casts light on how ridiculous our environmental process has become.

  • reality check

    We should look at fracking with honest eyes, but be mindful that ANY energy usage has its environmental costs. On the whole, are they higher or lower than other energy sources? I believe not using the energy in the first place (conservation) is the best way to go, but obviously that’s not going to solve all our energy needs. As a side note, as a Californian who has been through dozens of earthquakes: 2.0 earthquakes being triggered? So what – is that a problem?

  • sahra

    It could be, considering that the Inglewood Oil Field sits on fault lines. Although fracking has been a technique used in that field for decades, it now needs to become more intensive to get at harder-to-reach deposits, which means things like horizontal drilling. The tests conducted by PXP only measured the integrity of a vertical well fracked a minimal number of times, among other things. That test doesn’t replicate the kinds of drilling the field would actually see. For residents in the area, who have already seen the foundations of their homes crack because of the drilling in the area, it is a big concern. Perhaps of greater concern is the ability of wells drilled to withstand earthquakes set off by the drilling. Or if shifts in the ground could increase the risk for contamination of groundwater supplies. Moreover, the earthquakes in Ohio set off by the injection process ranged in magnitude from 2.7 to 4.0. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ohio-earthquake-likely-caused-by-fracking The references to smaller quakes result from the findings of the researchers that fracking is more likely to cause quakes than we previously anticipated… many of those earthquakes the researchers recorded had not been noted by the public or monitoring entities. in essence, they are calling for researchers to adopt a new way of approaching studies seeking to find links between quakes and fracking.

  • Yvonne

    Fracking isn’t an easy topic. Mostly it incurs boredom. The simple truths are:

    1) The PXP oil fields on La Cienega will affect everyone. When a ‘water pipe’ burst on La Cienega in February, the major thoroughfare to LAX was closed until the sinkhole it caused could be repaired. Culver City residents had to be evacuated when the fields caught fire & when there was a ‘gas leak’. This City cannot afford to have La Brea or La Cienega be out of service for any length of time.

    2) To allow fracking in the PXP fields will set precedence for fracking inside of a city. Fracking could occur at the Beverly Center, Veterans Administration, Beverly Hills High… Just because you don’t actually see the oil ponies doesn’t mean there isn’t any drilling going on. http://clui.org/sites/default/files/exhibits/online/westside.html

  • Anonymous

    “I cannot pretend to be an expert on fracking. Not even close.”

    You got that right! Go talk to the sick people in Windsor HIlls, those being treated for cancer, neurological brain damage, and respiratory diseases. Go to the graveyard, as so many have died of pancreatic and brain cancer due to exposure to benzene. Go look at their cracked home foundations and walls. Go to youtube and look at the Ross Dress for Less explosion (1985), from methane released by oil field operations. And go to the List of the Harmed and see how people all over the country are suffering from this toxic extreme method of extraction.

    And if you believe that fracking has been done here for decades, as the oil industry likes to say, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy. The extreme industrial technology of hydraulic horizontal fracturing did not exist before the early 2000s.

  • Us “silly” people is Brea, CA care!

    We’ve just learned that our area (Brea, CA) is being
    “fracked”. If you had asked me
    a couple of weeks ago about “fracking” in California (earthquake
    country) I would have said “they wouldn’t be careless enough to do
    that”. Wow, was I surprised. That’s why some of us concerned citizens
    started this website:

    http://www.stopfrackingbrea.com

    https://www.facebook.com/stopfrackingbrea?ref=hl

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