Oil wells in Kern County, where much of California's fracking has taken place. (Craig Miller/KQED)
Oil wells in Kern County, where much of California’s fracking has taken place. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The debate over hydraulic fracturing is heating up in California, as the state released draft regulations on Friday for the controversial oil extraction technique. This follows a bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year that adds new requirements for oil companies to protect groundwater and disclose more public information.

“These regulations are the strongest and most comprehensive environmental public health protections of any oil and gas producing state,” said Mark Nechodom, director of the California Department of Conservation, which oversees the state’s oil and gas division.

“At the same time,” he said, “these regulations are designed to ensure that the oil and gas industry in California, which is a key element of the California economy, will remain productive and competitive.”

The technique by which water, sand and chemicals are injected underground at high pressure to release more oil has been used for decades in California. The long-awaited draft regulations represent the state’s first effort to address fracking, beyond the standards for oil well construction.

New requirements in proposed fracking rules:

  • Oil companies must apply for a permit before fracking and disclose where it will take place, how much water will be used, the source of that water and how it will be disposed of.
  •  They must disclose what chemicals are used in fracking, but not the concentrations in cases where they claim a trade secret exemption.
  • Oil well operators must provide at least 30 days advance written notice before fracking, to landowners and neighbors within 1,500 feet of the well.
  • Property owners may request water quality testing of their own wells before and after fracking.
  • Well operators must review earthquake faults in the area to ensure that the fluids used fracking don’t migrate along faults.
  • An independent science panel will study the potential risks from hydraulic fracturing and other extraction techniques like acid well stimulation and report by January 1, 2015.
  • State oil and gas regulators will do an environmental impact review of the potential environmental risks of fracking in the state and report by July 1, 2015.
  •  The state will also set up a website by January 2016 for public information about fracking.
  • The State Water Resources Control Board will create a program to monitor groundwater basins specifically to protect drinking water sources from fracking.

Call for a Moratorium

“I’m feeling mixed about the regulations,” says David Pettit, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“I think that the best approach would be a straight up moratorium until fracking is proved safe,” he said. “But the regulations, particularly the scientific study and the statewide environmental impact report do give us a possibility of having a good analysis of the safety and public health issues that I hope the state can act on in a sensible way.”

“We’ve been doing it for 60 years and there hasn’t been an incident anywhere in the state,” says Catherine Reheis-Boyd of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group. “To have a moratorium would make it even more difficult for California to supply the crude oil it needs.”

“We understand we have to do this right and if we don’t, we won’t be doing it the state of California,” she said.

Potential Oil Boom

California has a century-old oil industry, located mainly in Kern County. With much of the easily-accessed oil recovered, focus has shifted to the Monterey Shale, which holds an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil. Oil companies say recovering that oil is a challenge, given California’s complex underground geology.

“If it is developed to the extent we hope, it really will provide jobs and a valuable to resource to California,” said Reheis-Boyd.

Environmental groups say extracting and using that oil runs counter to the state’s aggressive climate change goals.

“We have to shift to renewables,” said Kathryn Phillips of Sierra Club California. “California is doing a good job at that, but we need to accelerate. To get investment, you need to stop putting investment in false hope. Extracting more oil is false hope.”

State regulators are required to look at the potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking as part of the statewide environmental impact report.

What the Regulations Don’t Say

Questions remain about the environmental review of each oil and gas well, under California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under the new rules, oil well operators must get a permit for fracking. The permit triggers a review of the potential impacts on the local water, air and community. Officials haven’t yet specified how they’ll do this review. A comprehensive review could be done on a case-by-case basis for each individual well site, or regulators could rely on the statewide environmental review when granting fracking permits.

“We want to make sure people have an opportunity to know what’s happening in their region,” said Kathryn Phillips. “We think you can only have that if you have a well-by-well review.”

Questions also remain about whether several wells could be grouped together and approved with a single permit. In a signing statement, Governor Brown directed regulators “to develop an efficient permitting program for well-stimulation activities that groups permits together based on factors such as known geologic conditions and environmental impacts.” Oil and gas regulators say the conditions for grouping wells together will be developed in a separate rule-making process this spring.

The fracking regulations take effect on or before January 1, 2015. The division of oil and gas is developing a set of “emergency regulations” that will cover fracking until that time and the agency plans to release those in mid-December.

State regulators are expecting a deluge of public comments over the next 60 days. Five public hearings will also be held. Another public comment period will follow in the spring after the agency makes revisions to this draft of the regulations. 

What California’s New Fracking Rules Would Do (And Not Do) 22 May,2014Lauren Sommer

  • Eric

    Thanks for this great analysis. We’ll include it in our daily compilation of Goods Movement environmental and health news at http://tinyurl.com/mfn-news.

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  • kidkeenan

    ” focus has shifted to the Monterey Shale, which holds an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil.” What complete claptrap.This article is full of misinformation. No conceptual understanding of technique at all. The photo has nothing to do with fracking for starters….

    • bitrat

      LOL – well, if there’s not that much gas in the shale, we can always strip mine it like the Athabasca tar sands in Canada…..hey, I can retire – just sell my house to the energy companies and move to Bermuda……I’ll buy a boat so IF there is global warming (I deny the existence of that, as well as the existence of oxygen ;^p) my boat will simply float a few feet higher. See? No prob with Bob! There’s solutions looking for problems everywhere….hey, a strip mine or mountaintopping is actually HELPING the animals that live there – it forces them to adapt to a new environment, thus speeding up their reproduction and PROTECTING them from climate change.

      And I won’t go into the religious angle – obviously God is perfect, so everything is exactly as it SHOULD ne. HEY! Who stole my car? Darned kids…..just because they’re on cheap Chinese drugs and psycho from the chemical waste in the food doesn’t give ’em an excuse to steal my Beamer! Where’s my hunting dogs? Nurse Ratched, call OES….or is it SAR….or is it SARS and AIDS, Inc.? I always mix em up…..(sigh) well, I needed exercise anyway….darned furren made car never worked right anyway…..At least it wasn’t made with nuclear power like my Toyota, hee hee! Darned thing – runs forever, but I have to put on lead underwear every time I get in it….
      Aaaaah, the lovely new car smell of polybrominated diphenyl ethers…..I was huffing some the other day n I really got out there! Couldn’t even fit the key in the ignition….tell ya what though, it’s better than huffing gasoline – THAT stuff is dangerous! If ya knock it over it starts on fire, like that gas station scene in Hitchkock’s movie, “The Bird Brains” or whatever it was called. So by all means huff the fire retardants…NOT the freon, OK – number 1, it messes up the ozonosphere, whateverthehell that is, but more importantly, it comes out cold n you can crack a tooth if it’s frozen solid. Now when I was knee high to a grasshopper (Like on that darned TV show, what was it called, Gung Foo?) we used to sniff nitrous…..you know, laughing gas – no joke. We’d go to the grocery store n cadge a few cans a canned whipped cream, then sneak in the men’s room (no co-ed bathrooms in the good ol days, thank you very much) then huff the nitrous outta the cans….it was hilarious! Then, when we’d hear an employee coming, we’d put a little of the whipped cream on our faces and pull out a shaver so it looked like we we were using shaving cream, ha ha ha ha! Always got away with it to, until they noticed every time we came in the store the entire stock of canned whipped cream mysteriously disappeared. Aaaaah, no fun anymore – security cameras everywhere! Now ya have ta bribe a welding gas supplier employee or a dentist or buy those little whippits online…….but guess what? Turns out one pound of N2O (if I remember the formula correctly – might be the formula for Viagra, hee hee!) is equal to about 20 pounds of CO2 – that’s a heck of a big fire just to light yer fuse metaphorically speakin’ – guess old Jim Morrison wasn’t kidding when he sang, “Come On Baby Light My Fire”, hee hee! I always thought those kyrics meant take yer GF’s hairspray n light it on fire like people used to do with Bic lighters…..another fun entertainment made illegal…..whaddya, is this North Korea? I think everyone dhould be able to go out to Nevada and set off a nuke for the 4th, don’t you? Errrr….whaddya mean you live downwind? Oh? (sigh) Well, the good old days are over…..but at least the old folks home here lets us watch “Flipper Versus Godzilla” reruns, hee hee! Happy holidaze folks, n remember, don’t let yer meat loaf…….(Ahem) Nurse Ratched! Where’s my walker……? I wanna take a little stroll….ta ta.

  • bitrat

    I’m with you Lauren – we do need cheap gas and cleaner energy, but I can’t help wondering if we’ll look back at fracking in 20 years and say, “OMG, if we only KNEW!!”. I believe in natural gas as an efficient fuel – but the darned stuff makes CO2 when it burns….Let’s frack a little….but also say, “OK Exxon, you can frack Bakersfield, C to the max, BUT please donate one dollar out of every thousand you make to helping low income home owners put solar panels on their house – you can even insist they be the more expensive EXXON American made panels! Win – win it seems to me…..or how about this: Use the cheap gas to manufacture windmills, panels, high efficiency widgets here in the US! Not only addresses trade imbalance, but creates jobs, lowers unemployment, reduces climate change, etc….And BTW this is not MY idea….it’s already being done all over the world…..look at that dream city i the UAE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masdar_City

  • Jeff Schrade

    Fracking has been around for more than 50 years and is safe. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Democrats have been saying about hydraulic fracturing… people like Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, Stephen Chu, head of the Department of Energy, and more… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uVGY3sIBsA&feature=player_embedded#t=37

  • Although Fracking has been done for over 50 years, horizontal drilling that makes for much more efficient per-well productivity only started in mid 2000. Theoretically Fracking could be safe, if everything works perfectly, day-in day-out, for decades, immune to forces of weather, ground-subsidence, earthquake, human error or judgement; etc.
    On the other hand, the practice of fracking has entailed huge leaks, of fugitive emissions of methane into the air; so any regulation must address capture of excess methane, estimated at 8 to 20+% of annual natural gas production.


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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