Will Fracking Suck California Dry?

New technologies have expanded oil production, but they’re adding another thirsty mouth to the state’s tight water market.

Oil pumps in operation at an oilfield near central Los Angeles.
National Journal
Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Oct. 20, 2013, 10:07 a.m.

In Cali­for­nia, every drop of wa­ter counts, and every drop is con­tested.

The state’s fish­ers and farm­ers have been at war over wa­ter for dec­ades, bat­tling over how to di­vide the wa­ter between river beds and farm fields. And North­ern Cali­for­ni­ans — whose wa­ter sup­plies are more plen­ti­ful — live in fear of the desert neigh­bors to the south march­ing on the San Fran­cisco Bay Delta with pipelines and straws. And then there are mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies, which are all jock­ey­ing to se­cure sup­plies for Cali­for­nia’s nearly 40 mil­lion res­id­ents.

But now, they’ll all have a new con­tender to jostle with: the frack­ing boom.

Oil shale de­vel­op­ment is tak­ing off in Cali­for­nia, thanks in large part to hy­draul­ic-frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, tech­no­lo­gies for oil and gas ex­trac­tion that have opened pre­vi­ously in­ac­cess­ible fields to de­vel­op­ment. In or­der to get at those de­pos­its, however, frack­ing uses tre­mend­ous quant­it­ies of wa­ter.

For oil de­velopers, it’s an is­sue not to be taken lightly: Cali­for­ni­ans, hail­ing from a state known for its green eth­os, are already nervous about the im­pacts of frack­ing, and if oil com­pan­ies step on too many toes, it could de­rail the the en­ergy boom they’re so eagerly an­ti­cip­at­ing.

“The fact is that there is some am­bi­val­ence over frack­ing,” said Dav­id Hayes, Pres­id­ent Obama’s former deputy In­teri­or sec­ret­ary who re­cently left Wash­ing­ton for a Stan­ford Uni­versity pro­fess­or­ship. “It’ll de­pend on how the wa­ter is handled, but it’s cer­tainly an ad­di­tion­al chal­lenge.”

Cali­for­nia’s struggles re­veal a dark­er as­pect of Amer­ica’s en­ergy boom: Tech­no­lo­gies have vastly ex­pan­ded the coun­try’s en­ergy-de­vel­op­ment op­tions, but they have not — in many cases — ex­pan­ded the abil­ity to deal with im­pacts from that de­vel­op­ment. They haven’t pro­duced new in­fra­struc­ture to carry hy­dro­car­bons to mar­ket or new pol­lu­tion-con­trol tech­no­lo­gies to re­duce the ef­fects on cli­mate change, and above all, they haven’t found a way to main­tain or in­crease wa­ter sup­plies for Cali­for­nia.

So how do Cali­for­nia’s de­velopers in­tend to in­crease pro­duc­tion without suck­ing the state dry?

Frack­ing in­volves drilling deep be­low the sur­face and in­ject­ing chem­ic­als and wa­ter to re­lease oil and gas de­pos­its trapped in geo­lo­gic­al form­a­tions. In North Dakota, at the heart of the coun­try’s most re­cent en­ergy boom, frack­ing wells ac­coun­ted for 5.5 bil­lion gal­lons worth of wa­ter us­age last year, ac­cord­ing to state es­tim­ates.

But de­velopers in­sist that frack­ing in Cali­for­nia is dif­fer­ent from the frack­ing done farther east. Much of the state’s drilling op­er­a­tions are aimed at ac­cess­ing shale oil rather than nat­ur­al gas, and be­cause of the state’s geo­logy less wa­ter is needed.

Dave Quast, Cali­for­nia dir­ect­or for oil and gas de­vel­op­ment ad­voc­ate En­ergy in Depth, says that frack­ing wells in Cali­for­nia on av­er­age use a little more than 100,000 gal­lons of wa­ter, com­pared with oth­er wells to the east that guzzle gal­lons by the mil­lions. And Hayes noted that there are ways for de­velopers to cut down their wa­ter foot­print, in­clud­ing pro­grams that re­cycle some or all of the wa­ter used in op­er­a­tions.

“But,” Hayes cau­tioned, “that’s not the cus­tom­ary ap­proach yet where frack­ing is re­quired.”

For now, the state’s reg­u­lat­ors are tak­ing a wait-and-see ap­proach. SB 4, the Cali­for­nia’s land­mark frack­ing law signed last month by Demo­crat­ic Gov. Jerry Brown, con­tains little in the way of re­stric­tions on wa­ter us­age. In­stead, the law con­tains strict dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments. Un­der SB 4, drillers must pub­licly dis­close their wa­ter us­age start­ing in 2014.

Cali­for­nia’s en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity will be watch­ing when the re­ports start go­ing on­line. “One of the big prob­lems is we don’t have a handle on how much wa­ter is be­ing used. There’s a big data gap,” said An­drew Grin­berg, an Oak­land-based oil and gas policy ex­pert for Clean Wa­ter Ac­tion. But once the in­form­a­tion is pub­licly avail­able, Cali­for­nia res­id­ents will be bet­ter able to gauge how frack­ing im­pacts the state’s wa­ter­sheds, aquifers, and reser­voirs — and gauge how ef­fect­ively their reg­u­lat­ors are deal­ing with it, Grin­berg said.

“There’s def­in­itely a big role for the pub­lic and non­profits,” he ad­ded. “If we see any­thing, we need to be pre­pared to take ac­tion.”

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