This is the moment of truth for California and extraction of fossil fuels.
As The Bee's Tom Knudson reported last Sunday, the oil industry is gearing up to exploit "an enormous buried treasure called Monterey shale," a deep deposit that runs from Los Angeles to Modesto and is thought to contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil.
There's nothing wrong with that. Refineries in the Golden State receive most of their crude oil from the Middle East and Ecuador, and Southern California is attempting to transition rapidly from out-of-state coal-powered electricity to natural gas generation of power. To create jobs here and buffer California from international instability, it would behoove our state to be more of a home-grown producer of oil and gas.
Yet if the Monterey shale is to be further exploited, there must be safeguards in place – protections for groundwater, air quality and neighbors of developed gas fields. Currently, state and federal regulations are woefully inadequate. In 2005, for instance, Congress enacted what has become known as "the Halliburton loophole," named after the oil services company that former Vice President Dick Cheney once led. This loophole exempts most forms of hydraulic fracturing – those not involving use of diesel fuels as an additive – from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little or no authority to regulate "fracking" and the public is left in the dark. Where is fracking taking place? With what chemicals? How and where are oil extractions waste being disposed? The industry operates with little scrutiny.
As Knudson reported Sunday, fracking involves pumping water and chemicals deep underground to trigger fissures in oil- or gas-bearing shale. The oil and gas is then pumped to the surface, along with wastewater, which is supposed to be properly treated and disposed of.
The oil industry claims that fracking has been safely practiced for decades, but problems with well casings have contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and other states. The biggest concern is long-term contamination of deep aquifers. According to a recent congressional report, oil and gas companies used 29 fracking chemicals from 2005 to 2009 that are known or possible human carcinogens or regulated by federal laws.
No one knows for sure what chemicals the industry uses, because it is not required to report them.
And fracking is just part of the concern. The oil industry is using another method to "stimulate" oil wells and extract fossil fuels from deep in the earth. This method, known as acidification or "acid jobs," involves the injection of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into a well to create or widen channels for the oil and gas to seep out. Some industry officials have suggested that they plan to use "acid jobs" far more frequently than traditional fracking. Yet to date, the California Department of Conservation has no regulations – or plans for regulations – that would cover acidification.
These shortcomings demand that the California Legislature take action this session to oversee oil and gas extraction methods that, for far too long, have been completely underground, in all senses of that word.
Last week, the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources passed Senate Bill 4, a bill by Sen. Fran Pavley that would establish a comprehensive regulatory program for oil and gas well stimulation, including acidification. While the bill may need some fine turning – particularly on how regulators would deal with "trade secret" chemicals used in fracking – it would put California far ahead of other states in making sure that public interests are protected with expansion of modern oil and gas drilling techniques.
The oil industry has successfully beaten back 10 other pieces of fracking legislation this year. But if it kills off SB 4 as it now moves to Assembly appropriations, it risks a public blowback.
It wouldn't be hard to imagine an initiative passing in California that could put a complete moratorium on fracking and similar methods of oil and gas production. Is that what the industry wants?