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California's Big Fracking Mess


Residents of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Topanga gather to watch Gasland 2, a documentary criticial of fracking, at the local community center.(Amy Harder)

LOS ANGELES—California is almost 3,000 miles away from where the anti-fracking documentary Gasland gained its fame in Pennsylvania, but the fights playing out in the Northeast are now migrating west.

“This is a very important movie about an extremely important issue that has come to a neighborhood near you,” Lance Simmens, state director of the Gasland Grassroots group, told roughly 50 people who gathered in the affluent Topanga neighborhood on a recent Saturday night to watch the documentary’s sequel, Gasland 2.


Fracking, known officially as hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technology that’s helped unlock vast reserves of oil and natural gas throughout the country, trapped deep underground in rock formations. But it has been criticized for the environmental risks associated with it.

Pennsylvania is ground zero for this fight, where resident Josh Fox made Gasland in 2010 about these risks, including concerns about water contamination. Fox’s film and the sequel that HBO released earlier this year are now exporting the fight to the rest of the country and the world.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is debating whether to green-light fracking amid a five-year moratorium. In Colorado a statewide ballot initiative to ban the practice may come to a vote next year. Arkansas, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, and West Virginia are addressing fracking issues, and France upheld its fracking ban last week.


Now, the debate has arrived in California, the state known around the world for its leadership on renewable energy and climate change. And while Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to regulate fracking last month, some say the Golden State has hardly been out front.

“If you look at the regulatory apparatus in Sacramento, you can draw the conclusion that they have not been minding the store,” said Simmens, who worked for former Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell during that state’s fracking debate and appears in Gasland 2.

It’s unclear how much fracking is actually going on in California because the state’s Department of Conservation is not currently required to track it, according to Ed Wilson, spokesman for the department’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. But the department still regulates the practice, says Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom.

“It is a regulated activity in the sense we regulate all activities that are done in the drilling and completion of an oil and gas well,” Nechodom said. “In California, hydraulic fracturing has been used for 60 years and actively used for 40 years. And in California there has not been one record of reported damage [related] directly to the use of hydraulic fracturing.”


Based on voluntary reporting requirements the department put in place last year, Nechodom estimates that “we might see around 650 hydraulic fracturing jobs a year.” He says his department issues between 2,000 and 3,000 drilling permits a year. The fracking law and the attendant rules his agency is writing will provide data that “will give us a lot more accurate picture of how much is going on,” Nechodom said.

So why is California just beginning to collect data on fracking if it has been going on for decades? “Since we had not seen hydraulic fracturing as a high-risk activity compared to other things done in the oil patch, it was not reported,” Nechodom said.

The fracking fight in California is ramping up because of two converging factors: grassroots environmental groups questioning the practice, largely in response to the fear invoked by the Gasland films, and the potential development of the Monterey Shale formation in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We have two-thirds of the known reserves of oil shale deposits in the United States, and we should sensibly be producing that,” said Nechodom, noting this has been Brown’s long-held position. “It’s an enormous opportunity for the state to develop economically, and he [Brown] has said it needs to be well-regulated.”

Still, many environmentalists aren’t happy with the final iteration of the fracking bill, saying that major oil and gas producers in the state, chiefly Occidental Petroleum and Chevron, lobbied to ensure it was stripped of any regulatory heft.

“We could not get a ban, we could not get a moratorium, so the options for us as legislators was do we leave it completely unregulated because we can’t get a moratorium, or do we get what we can get,” said Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco and helped write the bill. “What we got are the strongest regulations and disclosure requirements on the oil industry of any state in the country. That’s a success.”

The law requires disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, where companies inject more than a million gallons of water, chemicals, and sand into rocks to release trapped oil and natural gas. It also regulates a well-stimulation technique known among environmentalists as “acidizing,” which uses potentially dangerous acids to clean the well or create a pathway for fuels.

In urban areas around Los Angeles, Nechodom’s department estimates that roughly 70 out of about 9,000 wells have been fracked. But the debate sparked by Gasland and activists like Simmens is still catching hold. In the Southeast neighborhood of Whittier, which just agreed to allow drilling on a nature preserve, the conditional permit specifically outlawed fracking, even though the company never had plans to do so. In the southwestern suburb of Baldwin Hills, where a company recently completed a study on fracking that found no environmental or public health harm, residents are still frustrated companies aren’t more transparent.

“If fracking is good, but you’re not willing to disclose, it’s not giving you the benefit of the doubt,” said Irma R. Muñoz, a Baldwin Hills resident and president of Mujeres de la Tierra, an environmental group. “It means you’re trying to hide something. You can’t have it both ways.”

Above all else, fracking has evolved to represent much more than a drilling technique. It’s become a symbol of choice: You either support fossil fuels, or you don’t. And in the state where action on climate change is the norm, this choice rings loudly.

“As you’re watching this and you’re gritting your teeth and clenching your fists, remember this needs to be used as a constructive force going forward,” Simmens said before the Gasland 2 showing in Topanga. “So we can do what we need to do to draw attention to the incredibly important questions that need to be asked and answered.”

Getting riled up, he spoke more forcefully: “The right question is should we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. If you don’t ask that question you give the politicians and the government and the institutions, which essentially run our public policy, a free pass.”

The group of 50 clapped loudly. And Simmens headed out to do the same thing all over the next day in Ventura County.

This article appears in the October 16, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as California's Big Fracking Mess.

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