By Mary M. Zhu
If industry has its way, California will be the new Texas. We sit on vast deposits of shale oil, which are only now accessible with enhanced methods of hydrofracking. This process fractures oil-rich shale with huge quantities of chemical-laden water, pumped under high pressure, to depths of 20,000 feet (3.8 miles), followed by explosives and then massive quantities of sand.
Industry will reap humongous profits but we will bear the risks. A brief outline of some these risks follows.
* Fracking will accelerate global warming by releasing abundant amounts of natural gas and oil. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the fracking process itself is energy-intensive and wells leak methane, the worst of the greenhouse gases. California shale contains mostly oil; its carbon footprint is not known.
Abundant, possibly cheap fossil fuels are purported bridges to renewal energy. However, if experience holds, they are more likely to be crutches that will keep us dependent on fossil fuels and remove incentives to develop renewable fuels.
* The oil industry is too big to regulate. According to Sourcewatch (May 10), fracking was exempted from seven key federal regulations as of 2012. For example, only oil/gas production is singularly entitled to release hazardous substances, including carcinogens such as benzene, into water supplies and only fracking fluids are entitled to be “trade secrets.”
Per the UC Berkeley School of Law report of April 12, California’s regulatory agencies are multiple and uncoordinated. The California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources only recently accepted that it holds primary regulatory responsibility. It then produced a draft resolution that Berkeley Law considers weak on multiple issues, such as transparency, tracking/regulating and disposing of waste and monitoring adjacent ground water quality.
* The new methods of fracking are hazardous to business interests. A June 21, 2012, report by Milliman, an actuarial company, argues the need for sufficient insurance to compensate for injuries and property damage from fracking; these will be costlier than for conventional drilling. Yet California requires only bonding and that is insufficient, according to Berkeley Law.
The Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein, in its Mealeys Litigation Report of Sept. 14, 2011, advised that industry will be protected by clauses that exclude damage from expected injuries and pollution. Since these hazards are now well-publicized, frackers will not be held responsible. Still the insurance industry is wary.
On Sept. 10, 2012, sustainability.thomsonreuters.com reported a leaked in-house memo from Nationwide Insurance stating that fracking operations will no longer be covered; they are too hazardous and litigations are proliferating. Despite these readily available documents on the web, lobbyists and some legislators still claim fracking is harmless. In an Assembly hearing, one representative said monitoring is “regulations in search of a problem.”
* Fracking wastes California’s scarce water. Considerable quantities of fresh water are used in the fracking process. Some of this water surfaces as waste water; per the Berkeley Law report, nine gallons of waste water is produced for every gallon of oil extracted. This wastewater is lost to the water cycle as it cannot be purged of its salts, pollutants/carcinogens and toxic substances, some radioactive, leached from underground deposits.
There is already competition between farmers and frackers for fresh water, per examiner.com (Jan. 21). Additionally, farmers also say pollution from nearby fracking activities are sickening their livestock.
* The much-touted economic boost from natural gas is yet to be seen. Per the Berkeley Law report, California geology is complex and poorly understood; seismic activities have made the layers heterogeneous. Our shale lies deeper and the locations are unpredictable. Consequently, fracking here is still experimental and a gamble.
Kern County has had a fracking boom in the past 10 years. If this boom created jobs, it’s not evident in county records, which show that unemployment increased from 8.6 percent in 2000 to 16.1 percent in 2010. In 2012, the energy industry contributed 6 percent of private-sector jobs, only one notch better than the lowest category of 5 percent. The largest contribution of private-sector jobs was 26 percent from agriculture. To endanger farming in favor of fracking would be foolish indeed.
* Earthquakes are a potential hazard of fracking. As reported by Berkeley Law, Ohio and Colorado had small but damaging quakes when fracking activity triggered unmapped or dormant faults. And these are not earthquake-prone states. California, with its active fault lines and tectonic stress, must recognize induced quakes as yet another hazard of fracking.
There are three Assembly bills proposing a moratorium. On May 25, the Appropriations Committee voted to merge AB 1301, the strongest of the moratorium bills, into AB 1323, another moratorium bill. The combined AB 1323, whose wording was not available at this writing, will come up for a vote very soon. If it fails, we can expect a year of frenzied fracking from an industry cognizant of increasing public opposition.
Given the uncertainties of legislation, direct action with local bans is advisable. Two New York towns will not be fracked because they voted in bans. Logically, bans would be most effective where fracking is expected. However, there are no requirements to notify the public of planned fracking activity and the location of existing fracking wells is known only by voluntary posting on Frac Focus. While incomplete, this website does show an increase in fracking wells in the past few years in sparsely populated areas north of us, such as in Colusa County.
If fracking California concerns you, please consider working for bans, especially in areas where wells are proliferating.
— Mary M. Zhu is a Davis resident. She hopes another activist will step up as she is re-entering the workforce.