Feb. 14, 2013
Kimberly Rivers, OVN correspondent
According to Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, a “lack of disclosure is creating a crisis in confidence at all levels of government.” Bennett testified in Sacramento Tuesday before state lawmakers, at a hearing on hydraulic fracturing. Also known as “fracking,” the process involves injecting water laced with chemicals (and frequently sand) into the ground, usually thousands of feet down, in order to extract oil and gas following a traditional drilling operation. A well may be fracked more than once. Currently 12 wells in the county are listed on the voluntary fracking website www.fracfocus.org.
The hearings, chaired by Sen. Fran Pavley, were a joint meeting of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. The California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) put out draft discussion regulations in December 2012. These hearings are meant to inform legislators as they move into the formal regulation process.
The state, local governments and the industry are preparing for what many are calling the next big oil boom. According to a July 9, 2011 report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “The largest shale oil formation is the Monterey/Santos playa in Southern California, which is estimated to hold 15.4 billion barrels or 65 percent of the total shale resources (for the lower 48 states).”
Santa Barbara County Supervisor for District 3, Doreen Farr, was the first county official to testify before legislators. She began by telling the story of how she discovered that fracking was occurring in Santa Barbara County in 2011. A rancher told her that a company notified him they would be drilling a new well on his property and “bringing in massive quantities of fresh water. I contacted our Planning Department and found that a land use permit was issued for drilling but the applicant made no mention of hydraulic fracturing.” Farr said the applicant was contacted and then “admitted they were using hydraulic fracturing on that well and on another well in the area, but didn’t disclose it because they didn’t see it was required. And indeed, the application process, at that time, was silent on the practice.”
Following that case, Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors adopted “amplified requirements in our land use code for hydraulic fracturing,” Farr said. “It is rare on any type of land use project that you will see all parts of a county share the same concerns. We heard from everybody, city dwellers, country dwellers, farmers, ranchers, vintners, water districts, in addition to those environmental groups that always follow oil issues very closely.”
The stakeholders were angry that this “could happen without any warning. They wanted a thorough and transparent public process prior to the approval of any fracking operation,” Farr said. “If water becomes contaminated, as one farmer put it, it’s game over. Those wells in Los Alamos and one in the Cuyama Valley … Of those three wells that we know have been fracked, none of them have been listed on fracfocus.org.”
“Ventura County is California’s oldest oil production zone,” Bennett told lawmakers when it was his turn to testify. “The fact that there is a wide variety of wells, aging components, means that fracking requires some special scrutiny,” he said. “In Ventura County, I hear three concerns: one, contamination of our aquifers; two, the use of scarce fresh water for fracking operations; three, that lack of disclosure is creating a crisis of confidence in government at all levels,” Bennett said. “Western Ventura is proud of the fact that we are living within our watershed, not importing water from the state. Our agricultural industry, a $2 billion a year industry, is the third largest in the state, (and) relies almost entirely on our groundwater. Not just water supply, but water quality is important.”
Based on shared concerns, Bennett and Farr suggested additions to the DOGGR regulations. “Consider adding notification of property owners and people that have (water) wells that could be affected. There is the issue of self reporting; the operator has an incentive to potentially interpret data in a different way,” Bennett said. “I would hope that you support full disclosure … Get it all out there; transparency has been the best way for us to decrease concern and allow us to create the best policies. One request: that you consider some quick actions while you are going through the yearlong rule making process. Why not just require the disclosure of all fracked wells? What is it we have to hide?”
“DOGGR hasn’t regulated hydraulic fracturing for 50 years,” Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson pointed out at the hearings. “Existing federal law allows hydraulic fracturing to be exempted.” Jackson was referring to the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) which specifically names the process of hydraulic fracturing as being exempt from the definition of “underground injection,” therefore making fracking an unregulated process at the federal level and leaving it up to states to oversee, regulate and permit the activity.
“I have heard today … there are gaps (in the regulation) and about the expansion of fracking, then people talk about we haven’t had problems for 60 years (while fracking has been occurring) … there is a whole level of increased interest,” said Bennett in concluding his comments. “The expansion of fracking brings with it new challenges, a dynamic field. We have unique geography. Generally, a democracy only fixes past problems. I think the challenge for you is to try to proactively anticipate where this is going and try to come up with good government policies that protect the public.”
DOGGR will be holding the first public fracking stakeholder workshop on the draft regulations Feb.19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel, 120 S. Los Angeles St., in Los Angeles.
For more information on voluntary fracking reporting, visit www.fracfocus.org; to view the DOGGR draft regulations, see www.conservation.ca.gov/dog; to view the Feb. 12 State legislative hearing, visit goo.gl/hAI3c