Jan. 10, 2013
Marianne Ratcliff, OVN correspondent
A draft of proposed hydraulic fracturing regulations released by the California Department of Conservation Dec. 18 – the first step in a formal rulemaking process set to start next month – is being criticized by Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett and a local environmental group for being too lax.
The drilling technique used to extract oil and gas from deep rock formations by blasting chemicals, sand and water into the earth, commonly referred to as fracking, has come under increased scrutiny across the country in the wake of a critical 2010 documentary, “Gasland,” and a boom in shale oil exploration in California, that relies on fracking.
“I’m glad to see that the state has finally released draft fracking regulations,” said Bennett, who represents the Ojai Valley. “At first blush, it looks like there is room for improvement in identifying fracking chemicals, in notifying the public and in water-quality testing, but we’re still working on reviewing the regulations.”
Last month, Bennett persuaded some of his fellow supervisors to vote for a study of the issue in Ventura County and to push the state for increased fracking regulations.
“It appears that the state is taking a reasonable approach,” countered Supervisor Peter C. Foy, of Simi Valley. “I have never been opposed to disclosure as well as the testing and monitoring of wells to ensure that operations are safe. What I am opposed to is overregulating a process that has been safely used for decades and would artificially reduce our ability to extract this resource. We should be maximizing our local sources of oil to reduce foreign dependency, and the jobs that go with it are crucial in our current economic situation.”
Foy voted against Bennett’s effort to encourage stricter state regulations.
The Department of Conservation/Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) plans to hold stakeholder workshops on the draft regulations. It is collecting written comments via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Once the formal rulemaking process begins, there will be a minimum 45-day public comment period and at least one public hearing.
The nonprofit law firm Environmental Defense Center, with offices in Ventura and Santa Barbara, is joining other environmental groups in calling for a moratorium on fracking in California until it is regulated. “The discussion draft regulations are small steps in the right direction, but, as a whole, they are insufficient,” said Brian Segee, EDC staff attorney in Santa Barbara. “There are a lot of major gaps in both the discussion draft regulations and legislation introduced this year. Neither requires prior notification to neighboring landowners and they do not address the loophole exemptions or the trade-secret exemptions.”
One of the loopholes he refers to is the 2005 Energy Bill that exempts energy companies from the underground injection control requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other exemptions in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The new draft regulations also allow energy companies to withhold information about some chemicals used in fracking under a trade-secrets exemption.
Under the proposed regulations, operators would be required to submit information to DOGGR 10 days before fracking a well. That information would be posted on its public website within seven days and at least three days prior to the well being fracked. Operators could still withhold information from confidential well records and some chemical recipes would remain trade secrets exempt from public disclosure, according to DOGGR.
Its website on the proposed regulations states: “The proposed regulations require disclosure of trade secret information if it is necessary for spill response or medical treatment, provided that the recipient agrees to maintain the confidentiality of the trade-secret information.”
The proposed regulations call for chemicals used at fracking sites to be disclosed within 60 days after the well has been fractured, which falls short of the full public disclosure the EDC is advocating, Segee said.
After-the-fact reporting of the chemicals used in fracking is sensible according to one fracking proponent.
“What is the purpose of disclosing chemicals?” asked Tupper Hull, vice president of strategic communications for the Western States Petroleum Association, a nonprofit trade association for petroleum production and marketing in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The reason to disclose the chemicals is “to determine if they have shown up in groundwater supplies,” he said. “That is not impacted by when the information is presented, whether it be 30 days, 20 days or 10 days” after hydraulic fracturing has occurred. He said that because fracking is a “well-completion process, once the well is drilled, a hydraulic fracturing program is developed for the specific geology and well characteristics. They may make that determination at the end of the drilling.”
“Laws that protect trade secrets occur throughout all regulations,” Hull said. “It is not something new to the oil and gas industry or hydraulic fracturing. It is a part of business law and has been for a century or more.”
Many companies, including those that produce medicine and food, he said, are allowed to protect legitimate trade secrets. “It protects competitive processes and materials that enhance and encourage competition in the marketplace and benefit consumers,” he added.
“Whatever the state decides to recommend, we ask that it be based on science and evidence, not on emotion,” Hull noted. “That appears to be the direction the state took. The evidence and science are quite clear and compelling that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process and does not pose a risk to groundwater.” Concerns that it is unsafe are “misplaced,” he said, in that oil and gas drilling occurs thousands of feet beneath the earth and groundwater basins are not that deep. In addition, “there are multiple layers of impervious rock between the two. There has never been an incident or case in California where anyone has suggested that hydraulic fracturing has harmed the environment or posed a risk to the environment.”
Currently, there is no requirement for energy companies to disclose what wells are fracked or what chemicals are used, although some voluntarily report fracking operations on a website, www.fracfocus.org, which is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Twelve wells in Ventura County are listed on the site as having been fracked.
Sandra Burkhart, senior coastal coordinator for WSPA, last month told Ventura County Supervisors that a survey of its membership revealed 628 wells in California were fracked in 2011.
Los Padres Forest Watch, a nonprofit conservation group, conducted an extensive, monthslong investigation of fracking and reported on its website that at least four wells in the Sespe Oil Field north of Fillmore were fracked in 2011 and at least three in 2012. It determined that 351 wells have been fracked in that oil field since the 1960s, although the exact number is not known because fracking operations are not required to be disclosed to the public.
One well, Grubb No. 477, southwest of Ojai above Highway 101, is listed on www.fracfocus.org as being fracked on May 27, 2011, using 361,260 gallons of water and ingredients, including ammonium chloride, hexamethylene tetramine, methanol, Erythorbic Acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, Xylene and Aromatic hydrocarbon solvent.
On the Ventura County side of Highway 33, the McGonigle 55 well was fracked May 29, 2012, using 32,004 gallons of water, with several ingredients, including a mixture of surfactants listed as “trade secrets.”
John Krist, chief executive officer of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said none of the Farm Bureau’s members have brought concerns about fracking to the Farm Bureau. “If farmers thought there was a problem, they would not be shy about saying it,” he said.
The state Department of Conservation/DOGGR has “focused entirely on promoting oil production,” Segee said. It needs to “balance production with preservation of natural resources and health and public safety. Fracking has gone unregulated for so long because of the lack of public disclosure. It’s hard to be concerned about something you don’t know anything about. We’re definitely going to participate in the Ventura County process to the extent we can and work on passing a strong statewide fracking bill.”
Segee said that today’s fracking operations differ significantly from those of 20 years ago as fracking technology has advanced. California is the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation and is on the verge of a shale oil boom. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last year that the Monterey Shale formation in California could hold as much as 15 billion barrels of oil. That resource “will dramatically transform the characteristics of many of our communities,” Segee said. “If indeed the rush is going to happen, we are trying to get a legal framework in place to provide adequate protection to the environment and public safety.”
“Hydraulic fracturing is a gift that California has been given,” said Hull. “Once we have worked through the regulatory process, we could be looking at a very promising renaissance in the economic future of this state. The renaissance is already occurring in much of the country. The result of the oil and gas production from hydraulic fracturing is a phenomenal success story.”
The state draft regulations on fracking are listed on the home page of the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources: http://www.conservation.ca.gov/dog/Pages/Index.aspx
Note: This story was updated to correct a typo Jan. 11, 2013 at noon.