Animated Explainer: What's All The Fuss About Fracking in California?

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Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to create California's first set of regulations on hydraulic fracturing. The controversial extraction technique, commonly known as fracking, involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into deep shale formations in order to create fractures that release reserves of oil or natural gas.

While fracking operations in the Northeast generally extract natural gas, in California, oil is the big prize.

Source: Wall Street Journal
Source: Wall Street Journal

Until now, there have been no specific regulations on the use of fracking in California. Senate Bill 4, written by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), requires drillers to obtain well permits, reveal the chemicals used in the well injection process and notify residents living nearby. The legislation also calls for groundwater testing and an independent study of fracking's impact on the state's environmental quality.

The bill, which takes effect in January, has been criticized by a host of environmental and public health groups for being far too lax in its regulation of the industry and containing unnecessary loopholes.


In California, drillers have long sought ways to access what is believed to be the mother lode of oil reserves, a deep, hard-to-reach swath known as the Monterey Shale that stretches beneath a massive section in the belly of the state. It's estimated to hold roughly two-thirds of the onshore recoverable shale-oil deposits in the continental United States.

For oil drillers, it means black gold ready for the tapping. But for many environmentalists, particularly those concerned with contamination of the California's major aquifers, a fracking boom means opening the door to potential unmitigated ecological and public heath disasters associated with water and air quality. There is also fear that injecting fluids into wells can stimulate earthquakes.

Over the next several months, The Lowdown will be digging deep (excuse the pun), into the complex and controversial technique of fracking and its potential impact both in California and nationwide. To get started, the animation above -- created by Phillip Dettmer -- presents an accurate and balanced take on the science, economic potential and environmental and health concerns involved in the debate. (Note that a recent study challenges the video's assertion about the significant methane emissions associated with fracking, but other studies have supported the claim).

The video below, while less objective, is a brilliantly entertaining musical animation on the topic, created by Explainer Music for an ongoing ProPublica series.

For more on the issue: