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Extra! Extra! “Fracking is Safe!” Says New Study

Image taken from "Hydraulic Fracturing Study" of the PXP Inglewood Oilfield prepared by Cardno ENTRIX

Not unlike most of you, I imagine, I am no expert in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Although I have been closely following the controversy regarding the desire of Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP) to move forward with its plans for fracking several hundred wells at the Inglewood Oil Fields in the coming years as well as regarding the community concerns about the limited oversight of the practice, I can claim no extraordinary competency in the subject. (For more background on the conflict between PXP and the Baldwin Hills community, see here, here and here).

So, when the 200-plus page PXP-funded study released a few days ago found that their fracking operations in the Inglewood Oil Field posed no threat to the community or the environment and would not induce earthquakes, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

No one else seemed particularly surprised by the report's claim that the practice is safe.

"Fox Guarding Henhouse!" screamed the media release that landed in my inbox from Food & Water Watch. The obvious conflict of interest and lack of consideration of the long-term consequences of the practice, the statement by their Pacific Region Director Kristen Lynch read, makes the report prepared by environmental consulting firm Cardno ENTRIX "an example of shill science at it’s [sic] worst."

But that judgement may not be wholly fair.

It may indeed seem suspicious that the industry funded its own study, but it did so per the requirements of last year's settlement of a 2008 lawsuit.

The settlement also required that PXP agree to reduce the number of wells drilled, commission additional studies on health and air quality, and determine the effects that fracking could have on the surrounding area.

The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of organizations on behalf of community members, had been sparked by an incident in early 2006, when noxious fumes released by PXP’s drilling operations wafted through nearby residential areas. Complaints about the odors came from as far as two miles away, and a number of residents had been forced to evacuate the area.

Having PXP pay for the independent study themselves was, at the time, seen as a way to exact punishment, not promote corruption.

That said, a first reading of the lengthy executive summary of the report does raise a few questions.

Of greatest concern is that they only tested two vertical wells and that only one stage of the process was completed during each operation.

As most wells need to be fracked in multiple stages (some claim the number may range between 8 and 40 times), why not test the integrity of a well throughout the entire process? It would seem logical that the more stages of fracking a well underwent, the greater the likelihood that the risk of inducing seismic activity or generating detrimental effects to the environment would increase over time. The well may withstand the pumping in of several million gallons of water and several thousand gallons of chemicals the first time, but what about the 20th time? And what about in horizontal wells (the method not tested)?

Speaking of water, another surprise in the report was the adamancy with which the authors reiterate that the groundwater underneath the oil fields has no contact with drinking water used by surrounding communities. They describe in detail the structure of the barriers that prevent the groundwater from seeping into the drinking supply before casually mentioning that the groundwater seems to have been unharmed by the test frack jobs.

On the bright side, activists like the National Resources Defense Council's Damon Nagami hope that the wealth of new data the report provides will offer insights into an often opaque practice. Provided the information and results can be confirmed by independent experts, he argues, the data may be useful in informing debates about how to regulate fracking going forward.

Want to see for yourself? The report and other supplemental documents are available here.

Want to find more out about what PXP is up to? As a condition of the Community Standards District (CSD) ordinance, PXP is required to hold an annual community meeting that provides the public a chance to ask questions about activities at the oil field. This will be the fourth annual meeting and is in addition to the Community Advisory Panel (CAP) meetings normally held on the fourth Thursday of every month.

This year’s annual meeting will be Monday, October 15, from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at the Knox Presbyterian Church located at 5840 La Tijera Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90056.

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