"No Confidence" State Will Protect Californians from Fracking, Senators Told
By Dan Aiello
At a joint committee hearing yesterday to discuss the administration's proposed oil and gas regulations to monitor a method of extraction known as fracking, California senators were told by one Ventura County supervisor that the state's lack of leadership, control, preparedness and monitoring have led to "a crisis in confidence at all levels of government" among local officials and the state's residents.
Ventura County supervisor Steve Bennett appeared before the joint informational hearing of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water and the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality to tell members his county is gravely concerned about Governor Jerry Brown, Jr.'s proposed draft regulations that could lead to a proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking,' in his county where deep groundwater almost entirely supplies its residents and agriculture.
A loophole in a 2005 Federal law monitoring oil wells that has been called "the Halliburton giveaway" to oil producers exempts fracking wells from monitoring and regulation by defining them as "stimulation" rather than "underground injection" wells. Brown's proposed regulations are supposed to address that safety lapse according to the administration, but Reuter's John Kemp reports the real purpose of the regulations is to allow for the proliferation of fracking wells in California, primarily to extract the Monterey Shale deposit which is spread over six central and southern California counties.
Fracking operations in Kern County have led to the contamination of groundwater supplies as the practice of pumping large amounts of chemicals, sand, water and steam under high pressure to retrieve heavy oil deposits has led to casing failure, wastewater migration from the surface and even inducing fault activity as the practice "lubricates" California's earthquake-prone fault lines.
The primarily Texas-headquartered oil industry, which has continued to experience record profits as gas prices soar and which Forbes magazine reports as its "most recession-proof" industry because it employs so few compared to its profit ratio, remained defiant at the hearing that California should remain the only government in the world not to assess a severance, extraction fee or royalty on the removal of its finite supply of oil.
When Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group asked if Western States Petroleum Association lobbyist Tupper Hull's earlier comments amounted to a concession by the industry it should be reimbursing a state that must monitor, inspect and regulate the industry's thousands of oil rigs - 628 of them currently employing fracking methods - Hull responded curtly, "I'm pretty sure I didn't say that."
The oil industry currently refuses to disclose which of the 29 known carcinogenic chemicals known to be used in fracking are being used in California's unregulated fracking fields, claiming they are "proprietary trade secrets," that cannot be shared. Senators wondered how the State's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which was well known under the Schwarzenegger administration to be a lap dog to an oil industry with the deepest pockets and strongest lobby in Sacramento, could possibly be effective in protecting California's local groundwater supplies from industry accidents or deliberate acts of cost-cutting environmental destruction without knowledge of the chemicals used or a budget that would cover an adequate number of "on the ground" field inspectors.
DOGGR representatives told the hearing they weren't sure how many inspectors they actually had in the field but guessed it was approximately fifty.
SB241, legislation proposed this session by Senator Noreen Evans (D-Napa ) calls for an end to California's tax-free oil extraction. Money from such a severance tax could fund DOGGR monitoring of the industry and, as it does in Louisiana, fund an emergency environmental catastrophe fund to respond to oil or wastewater spills stemming from extraction, production or transport of oil and gas.
"We are the only oil drilling state that doesn't tax oil producers for the extraction of our resources," Santa Barbara Democrat, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson told the California Progress Report. Jackson said she has a host of concerns about fracking, but first and foremost is the lack of monitoring of an industry known to violate California law with impunity.
"They're not only arrogant, they're incredibly powerful," said Jackson. Jackson is no stranger to the long arm and deep pockets of the industry's lobby after she tried, unsuccessfully to pass legislation to pipe, rather than barge, oil onshore in order to reduce the possible risk of an oil spill along California's fragile coastline. While Jackson considered the legislation "sensible" and "minor," Venesco, an oil producer in her district, did not, and the legislation was defeated in an oil industry-friendly state legislature.
"We currently have little to no information on where fracking is taking place within the state," said State Senator, Lois Wolk (D-Davis). "That's unacceptable. I am also concerned about the lack of real scientific information about the effects of hydraulic fracking and injection wells on aquifers and groundwater, particularly in the Central Valley," Wolk said.
"The Central Valley, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to the Tehachapis and to the Coast, is an area of high interest for drillers. Given the scale of the Monterey Shale, we need our regulatory framework to be up to date, effective, and well funded."
Wolk is a co-author of SB 241 and supports the legislation that would bring approximately $1 billion dollars in revenue to the state at a current production rate of approximately 240 million barrels of oil.
Wolk, who represents the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is concerned about the potential affects groundwater contamination in Southern California could have on the Delta, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast, an ecosystem that has withered under the pressure by water wanting regions to drain it of most of its water. It faces a new threat to drain another 7 million acre feet under the euphemistically named Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
In Kern County alone, fracking has used 2.8 trillion gallons of aqueduct water to date. Wells can use up to 1.46 million gallons of water a week and take up to 8 barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. The water used in fracking then becomes a toxic soup the industry is still trying to find a way to safely dispose.
"Two of our state's most significant natural resources are water and oil. We had better make sure that obtaining one doesn't harm the other, and that our policies are developed based on real science and observation," said Wolk.
The source of the water used by energy companies was another concern of legislators at yesterday's hearing. State water experts said that while energy companies would be constrained in water consumption during drought years for water purchased from districts and water profiteers, groundwater would is not restricted by the state, leaving many at the hearing to speculate that fracking operations could potentially deplete the state's groundwater supplies as well as pollute them.
Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) chaired yesterday's joint hearing. Pavley was unsuccessful in navigating modest fracking monitoring legislation through a hostile legislature and past deep-pocketed lobbyists for oil, gas, chemical and corporate interests last year, including the notoriously pro-corporation California Chamber of Commerce that endorsed the regressive taxation of California residents through sales taxes while opposing the oil severance tax for out-of-state companies like Mobil/Exxon, Shell, Texaco, British Petroleum and Chevron.
Pavley voiced her concerns about Brown's proposed regulations.
"Is the existing or proposed regulatory framework sufficient to regulate fracking with transparency and accountability enough to ease public concerns," Pavley asked. "Public concern extends far beyond the well head to air and water quality, water supply, risks to agriculture (including increased food prices for consumers as farmers must pay more for water made scarce by the expected proliferation of fracking wells), and unknown seismic dangers?" Pavley didn't know.
Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report.