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Fracking in California: NINE Questions And CONCERNS

California is threatened with an impending fracking boom. But what is fracking, really? And what risks does it pose to the Golden State?  Why do we believe fracking is simply too risky to our water, air, wildlife and climate?

1. What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil and gas production that involves blasting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, under high pressure deep into the earth. Fracking breaks up rock formations to allow oil and gas extraction. But it can also pollute local air and water and endanger wildlife and human health.

2. Where is fracking being done in California?

Fracking has been documented in 10 California counties — Colusa, Glenn, Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Sutter, Kings and Ventura. Oil companies have also fracked offshore wells hundreds of times in the ocean near California’s coast, from Seal Beach to the Santa Barbara Channel.

In Kern County, California’s major oil-producing county, 50 percent to 60 percent of new oil wells are fracked, according to estimates by Halliburton. And fracking may have been done elsewhere in California, since state officials haven’t monitored or tracked the practice until recently.

Oil companies are increasingly interested in using fracking and other dangerously extreme fossil fuel extraction methods in the Monterey Shale. This geological formation under the San Joaquin and the Los Angeles basins may hold a large amount of extraordinarily dirty, carbon intensive oil.

3. How does fracking contaminate our water?

Fracking routinely employs numerous toxic chemicals, including methanol, benzene, naphthalene and trimethylbenzene. About 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, according to scientists with the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Evidence is mounting throughout the country that these chemicals are making their way into aquifers and drinking water. 

Water quality can also be threatened by methane contamination tied to drilling and the fracturing of rock formations. This problem has been highlighted by footage of people in fracked areas setting fire to methane-laced water from kitchen faucets. 

Fracking can also expose people to harm from lead, arsenic and radioactivity that are brought back to the surface with fracking flowback fluid. Fracking requires an enormous amount of water, and because fracking waste water contains dangerous toxins it generally cannot be cleaned and reused for other purposes. Especially during a historic drought, we cannot afford to permanently remove massive quantities of this precious resource from our state’s water supply.

4. How does fracking pollute our air?

Fracking can release dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. It can increase levels of ground-level ozone, a key risk factor for respiratory illness. The pollutants in fracking water can also enter our air when that water is dumped into waste pits and then evaporates. Air pollution caused by fracking may contribute to health problems in people living near natural-gas drilling sites, according to a study by researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health.

5. How does fracking worsen climate change? 

Fracking and similar techniques often release large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that’s at least 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Fracking also allows access to huge fossil fuel deposits that were once beyond the reach of drilling. In California, oil companies are increasingly interested in using fracking on the Monterey Shale, a geological formation under the San Joaquin and the Los Angeles basins that may hold a large amount of dirty, carbon-intensive oil.

Moreover, much of California's oil is dirty, heavy crude. The California Air Resources Board scores many of the state's oil fields as approximately as carbon intensive as oil from the infamous Alberta tar sands. As California strives to lead the fight to avoid a climate change catastrophe, why should we facilitate the release of carbon in billions of barrels of carbon-intensive oil now safely sequestered in our shale formations? We shouldn’t.

6. How does fracking threaten wildlife? 

Endangered species like the California condorSan Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard live in places where fracking is likely to expand. These animals can be harmed and killed in many ways by fracking and the industrial development that accompanies it.  

7. Don’t state and federal laws protect our wildlife — and us — from fracking?

Fracking is very poorly regulated at the federal level. In 2005 Congress exempted most types of fracking from the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, severely limiting protections for water quality. In April 2012 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized new Clean Air Act rules called “New Source Performance Standards” that will limit air pollutants from fracked gas wells. However, the rules don’t cover oil wells, don’t set limits on methane release — and won’t take effect until 2015. As a result, regulating fracking falls largely to the states.
And California officials aren’t doing much to protect the state’s millions of residents. State oil regulators didn’t even track where and how often fracking was happening until they were forced to do so by public pressure.

In September 2013 California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 4, a weak fracking law that a Los Angeles Times editorial called “so watered down as to be useless.” The law requires the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources  to establish regulations beginning in January 2015. DOGGR has proposed weak, industry-friendly regulations that will do little to protect public health or the environment from fracking.

DOGGR is also required to conduct a scientific study of the effects of fracking and other extreme fossil-fuel extraction techniques by January 2015, as well as to develop an environmental impact statement by July 2015. Think it’s irresponsible to draft regulations without knowing the potential threats of the activity that you’re regulating? We do too.

The bottom line: Fracking is an inherently dangerous practice, and the only way to protect ourselves is to halt use of this toxic technique. That’s why we’re asking the governor to ban fracking in California.

8. But hasn’t fracking been done in California for many years?

Yes but today’s fracking techniques are new and pose new dangers. Technological changes have facilitated an explosion of drilling in areas where, even a decade ago, companies couldn’t recover oil and gas profitably.

Directional drilling, for example, is a new technique that has greatly expanded access to rock formations. Companies also employ high fluid volumes to fill horizontal “well bores” that sometimes extend for miles. And oil and gas producers are using new chemical concoctions collectively called “slick water” that allow injection fluid to flow rapidly enough to generate the high pressure needed to break apart rock. 

Furthermore, if oil exploitation begins on a large scale in California, it will most likely happen through a combination of fracking and acidization. Acidization, another dangerously extreme fossil fuel extraction technique, is similar to fracking but employs hydrofluoric or hydrochloric acid to dissolve rock in order to release oil and gas. Acidization pollutes our air, and acid is a hazardous substance that can leak and cause deadly accidents.

As fracking methods have changed and fracking has expanded, so has the threat to public health and the environment.

9. How can I fight fracking in California?

Tell Governor Newsom to ban fracking and phase out fossil fuels.


Fracking photo by Emiliano Ortiz/Flickr