The Bay Area hearing follows revelations this week that wastewater from fracking has contaminated groundwater with the carcinogenic chemical benzene at levels hundreds of times the maximum considered safe by federal regulators, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. This is only the latest revelation in a growing scandal around the state agency supervising the oil industry, the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Since July 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency has gradually revealed growing evidence that hundreds of California oil fields have been injecting wastewater laced with toxic chemicals into wells connected to drinking water supplies.
[jump] Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves the shooting of massive amounts of water and chemicals into the earth to break apart shale formations and release oil and natural gas. Fossil fuel companies call it “well stimulation.” But the wastewater that flows back to the surface can be highly toxic and hard to dispose of. So oil drillers inject the wastewater back into the ground.
The state’s environmental impact review of fracking, released by DOGGR on January 14, addresses the issue of water pollution but concludes that with the right mitigation measures, fracking operations could reduce the level of harm to the water supply to “less than significant.” A San Francisco Chronicle report that day quoted DOGGR head Steven Bohlen as saying, “With the regulations and the newly formulated proposed mitigation measures in place, DOGGR is confident well-stimulation-treatment activities can continue in California without the kind of environmental problems that have plagued well-stimulation treatment in other states with lesser levels of environmental protection.”
The state EIR also found that in some locations fracking causes unavoidable harm to wildlife and fish habitat as well as to historic, prehistoric, and cultural resources. And it found that fracking causes “significant and unavoidable” increases in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the risk of fuel spills and explosions during both mining and transportation of the fuel.
Another report issued in January, this one prepared for the California Council on Science and Technology, described current “well stimulation” activities in California. It reports that about one-fifth of oil produced in California in the last decade was the product of well stimulation, mostly fracking. Kern County produces the vast majority of fracked oil, along with smaller sites in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. In California, gas produced from fracking all comes from oil fields – gas-only extraction sites in Northern California do not use fracking.
The second report also discusses the widely reported possibility of fracking large amounts of oil from California’s Monterey Shale formation. It cites two conflicting estimates from the US Energy Information Administration. The first, in 2011, suggested that it would be possible to obtain 15 billion barrels of oil from the Monterey Shale. The second report, in 2014, reduced the estimate to 0.6 billion. “There is little evidence to support either estimate,” the report comments.