California’s Big Fracking Mess

None

Residents of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Topanga gather to watch Gasland 2, a documentary criticial of fracking, at the local community center.
National Journal
Amy Harder
See more stories about...
Amy Harder
Oct. 15, 2013, 3:26 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
19 hours ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×