Last week, California issued draft regulations for fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, an increasingly popular but controversial method of oil and natural gas retrieval.
How does fracking work? KQED Science's Lauren Sommer explains:
Millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are injected underground at high pressure. That cracks the rocks, letting the oil out. Around the country, hydraulic fracturing has led to record levels of oil and gas production.
While fracking has been big news for a while in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere in the country, it has yet to become a popular topic of dinner conversation in California. That's likely going to change.
Don Gautier, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Lauren Sommer that while fracking has actually been used in California for decades, "a bit of a Gold Rush mentality concerning shale oil" currently exists.
"What is new right now is that the price of oil is reasonably high," Gautier said. "This technology has become very sophisticated. So these explorationists are justifiably optimistic about the idea of being able to get out oil that couldn’t have been accessed just a few decades ago."
And some environmentalists aren't happy about it.
“There is absolutely a danger of California being transformed almost overnight, as other areas of the country have been when the fracking boom hits,” Kassie Siegel, a lawyer with the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, told Lauren Sommer. “In other parts of the country, we’ve seen contaminated water. We’ve seen people who live near oil and gas wells complaining of health effects.”
Whether those impacts are specifically caused by fracking is under debate, says Sommer. But in any event, the success of the technology means that companies are more confident in their ability to extract oil efficiently and economically, and they're ready to bring these improved techniques to California, which boasts the country's largest shale oil resource.
As the fracking debate heats up here, a few things to pay attention to, compiled from KQED Public Radio's recent Forum show on the regulations:
The state agency that released the draft regulations is the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources -- "DOGGR" to friends. DOGGR is calling the first version of the guidelines a "discussion draft." What does that mean? According to its website: "It is a starting point for discussion by key stakeholders – industry, the environmental community, and other regulators, as well as interested members of the public – in preparation for the more formal process, which probably will begin in early 2013."
If you are one of those interested members of the public, you can email your suggestions and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also sign up for updates on the regulation process and read the draft document here.
2. Well Integrity
Seemingly all sides of the fracking debate agree that the infrastructure of hydraulic fracturing, the wells themselves, is key to keeping the public safe.
Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that well integrity is especially important in hydraulic fracturing because "the well actually goes through the aquifer; it goes past where you are drawing your drinking water from. So it is incredibly important that the well is developed properly."
McGinty says that many people worry about the injected fracturing fluids contaminating drinking water. Instead, she said, the focus needs to be on preventing gas or oil leakage from wells.
"Where water quality has been compromised is not in the fracturing fluids getting into the water, but in there being leaks in the well so that the gas or the oil migrates into the drinking water," said McGinty. "That is a problem. It is preventable, and we ought to keep our eye on that ball."
The oil industry agrees.
"The whole issue, really, around hydraulic fracturing focuses on the integrity of the well," said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association. "If that is maintained then hydraulic fracturing is not any different than any other oil-stimulating production technique. Those regulations are in place, have been in place, and it's the reason, frankly, there has been no evidence of groundwater contamination."
3. Water Use
As Mark Twain said: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over." Nowhere is that more true than in California.
When prompted by Forum guest host Scott Shafer to name a safety control she would like to see in place that may not sit well with oil companies, McGinty brought up water conservation, not water pollution.
"I think the sustainability of the gas and oil industry needs to be going in a direction of very significantly reducing its water footprint," said McGinty. "Not just not polluting the water, but actually going to zero net consumption of water. Cleaning water, conserving water, that would be a big challenge, but I have to believe in a place like California it would be vitally important."
The draft regulations do not currently address water consumption.
4. The Upside
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine quoted an analyst who says "that the natural gas industry will bring around three million new jobs to the United States by the end of this decade."
The same article described natural gas extraction via fracking as "the economic equivalent of a gift from the heavens" for the American steel industry.
And there's more than economic benefits at stake. Energy independence, for example.
California only produces 30 percent of what it needs in crude oil, said Reheis-Boyd, which leaves us relying on foreign imports. According to Reheis-Boyd, 42 million gallons of gasoline and 11 million gallons of diesel are used daily for transportation in the Golden State.
"We still have projections out to 2035 that 80 percent of our needs are going to be produced by coal, gas and oil," said Reheis-Boyd. "If we stopped all of this tomorrow, we would have a revolution in California for people who expect to get up every day and drive from A to B affordably, to turn their lights on, and heat and cool their homes."
And McGinty argues that increased natural gas production has actually led to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"You have what’s called 'coal to gas switching,'" said McGinty, "with a lot more natural gas coming on and that has led to a pretty significant drop -- for the first time in decades -- in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States."
5. Trade Secret Exemptions: Big Loophole?
"Companies will have to disclose what they're injecting into the ground, which often includes diesel compounds and known carcinogens, unless they claim a 'trade secret' exemption,'" said KQED's Lauren Sommer. Under the exemption, companies only have to disclose what family the injected chemicals are from. Critics say this is a loophole, one that has been taken for granted -- 19,000 times, in fact -- by companies in Texas.
And the controversy over transparency doesn't end there. People will only know about fracking at a specific location if they check a designated website, most likely several days before the fracking begins.
"There is no rule that says that oil companies actually have to notify land owners nearby," said Sommer.
That does not sit well with critics.
"To have people who live in an oil drilling area look at the website every day to find out if a well is going to be drilled and fracked near them is basically absurd," said Bill Allayaud, California Director of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group. "Why can't, when someone's building a project in your neighborhood, you get a notice by mail?"
Reheis-Boyd defends the exemption: "Trade secrets are really not about oil companies as much as they are in promoting competition, and that competition always benefits the public."
6. Interagency Coordination
DOGGR acknowledges environmental concerns about groundwater, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions but isn't quite sure if they fall under its jurisdiction.
"Certainly, there is a big concern with air pollution and methane, which is a pretty potent greenhouse gas which comes out of wells," said Sommer. "And there is obviously a concern with groundwater supply. But [DOGGR] is saying they’re in discussions with other agencies about how to deal with those issues."
You can listen to the full Forum episode by clicking on the player below: