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California’s thirst shapes debate over fracking

By Norimitsu Onishi

OROVILLE — Enemies of fracking have a new argument: drought.

Fracking a single oil well in California last year took 87 percent of the water consumed in a year by a family of four, according to the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group. That amount — a modest one by national standards, the oil industry argues — has become an increasingly delicate topic since a drought was officially declared early this year in the state.

The drought, combined with a recent set of powerful earthquakes, has provided the momentum for about a dozen local governments across California, the third-largest oil producing state, to vote to restrict or prohibit fracking in their jurisdictions, as concerns over environmental effects and water usage have grown.

At the same time, a bill that would declare a statewide moratorium on fracking has been gathering support in the State Senate, a year after a similar effort failed.

“There will be a statewide moratorium, whether it comes this year, next year or the year after that,” said Kathryn Phillips, the director of Sierra Club California, a leading opponent of fracking. “Even if we don’t get a moratorium, just the threat of a moratorium discourages investment.”

The oil and gas industry says that fracking’s opponents have exploited the emotions surrounding the drought to push for unnecessary restrictions. The Western States Petroleum Association argues that “the amount of water used here is quite small when compared to other uses for water.”

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the association, said she found it frustrating that the drought and earthquakes had given her opponents such momentum. “Both of these issues are being used because it elevates the conversation, because people would be concerned normally about water in a drought year and any kind of seismic activity,” she said.

The anti-fracking bill in California, which faces an uphill battle, would not be the first: Vermont banned fracking in 2012, and New York and North Carolina have temporary bans while the states study the impact, which is what California proposes to do. In Colorado, environmental activists, after failing to persuade lawmakers to ban fracking, are now promoting a ballot initiative that would limit the practice. But only in California are water issues being cited front and center.

Energy companies extract oil and gas trapped in rocks deep underground through the high-pressure use of a mix of chemicals and vast amounts of water in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Brackish water can be used, but freshwater is easier and less costly. That pits frackers against farmers, golf course operators, suburban lawn owners and every other user of freshwater in this drought-stricken state.

Officials here in Butte County moved last month to ban the fracking of oil and gas wells, quickly drawing up a plan during a public meeting filled with fracking opponents. The speed of the decision surprised the activists who had pressed for more modest regulation — especially since there is no fracking going on here.

But the county is home to Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest water reservoir, which now holds only two-thirds of the water it should at this time of year. On a recent sun-filled morning, houseboats at a marina were anchored in clusters as if near the bottom of a bathtub.

Dave Garcia, a leader of the Butte Citizens Action Network, a local environmental group, said, “Water played a huge role” in the vote by the Butte County Board of Supervisors to ban fracking.

Besides the drought, seismic activity in March in Los Angeles — an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.6, followed by a 5.1 temblor in the course of one evening — has also given traction to fracking critics’ arguments that the procedure is simply too dangerous for California.

The oil and gas industry says it has engaged in conventional fracking in California for decades with no seismic consequences. But elsewhere in the country, where companies carry out fracking with new techniques in horizontal drilling and new cocktails of chemicals, experts have been investigating whether fracking has caused earthquakes in places not known for seismic activity, like Oklahoma.

“It’s a perfect storm of information coming through at once,” said Phillips of Sierra Club California.

In Southern California, the oil-rich city of Carson recently placed a 45-day moratorium on fracking, Beverly Hills voted to ban it and Los Angeles is preparing an ordinance to do the same. Several other local governments here, including Culver City, Santa Cruz County and Santa Barbara County, have voted to restrict fracking in the last couple of years.

There is no justification for fracking in any of our draught regions. Fracking should be suspended in drought areas until the aquifers are…

On the state level, the Senate is considering a bill that would delay any fracking until California completes a study of the practice’s impact on the environment and public health. Among the obstacles the bill will face is opposition from legislators who see the economic advantages of fracking and say that existing regulations — including some passed last year — provide the necessary muscle to safeguard the environment.

“The potential effect of this moratorium on jobs is horrendous,” said state Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican, who voted against the bill in committee. “Fracking has occurred in this state for over five decades — we know how to frack in California, and we’ve done it in a safe manner. I think the issue with water was exaggerated in terms of usage.”

A major issue in the political debate is the Monterey Shale, a 1,750-square-mile geological formation stretching from Southern to Central California that is estimated to contain the country’s biggest shale oil reserves. Despite California’s long oil production history, the reserve has been left largely untapped because of the formation’s geological complexity. Advances in drilling and fracking have given hope to drillers that it is only a matter of time before the Monterey Shale’s oil can be profitably extricated.

The prospects of widespread drilling and fracking in the Monterey Shale had already galvanized California’s powerful environmental groups. But the record drought has widened concerns as it pits various industries, groups and regions against one another in another chapter of California’s battle over water.

According to the Western States Petroleum Association, an average of 127,127 gallons of water was used to frack a single oil well in California last year, below the 146,000 gallons consumed by a family of four throughout the year. But critics of fracking point out that advanced techniques, the kind necessary to exploit the Monterey Shale, will require significantly greater amounts of water.

That fear was behind the move by local governments, including Butte County, to prohibit fracking. “Once it becomes economically feasible, they’re going to come to Butte County,” said Garcia of the Butte Citizens Action Network.

Enough people agreed with Garcia that Butte County’s Board of Supervisors — made up of three Republicans, one Democrat and one member who has declined to state a party preference — voted 4 to 1 for the ban.

Larry Wahl, a Republican who was the only one to vote against it, said that the decision was made prematurely.

“It was a purely emotional response to a crowd of people who demanded a ban on fracking,” he said.

New York Times News Service

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