Fracking feature
Pumpjacks draw crude oil from wells on Signal Hill in Long Beach. (David McNew/Getty Images)

President Obama’s chief custodian of federal lands says local and regional bans on fracking are taking regulation of oil and gas recovery in the wrong direction.

“I would say that is the wrong way to go,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told KQED in an exclusive interview. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for industry to figure out what the rules are if different counties have different rules.”

In November, two California counties added themselves to a growing list of local bans on hydraulic fracturing. Voters approved measures in San Benito and Mendocino Counties by wide margins.

“There are a lot of fears out there in the general public and that manifests itself with local laws or regional laws,” Jewell said.

The recent move by New York to extend a statewide ban does not sit especially well with Jewell, who, as a former petroleum engineer, has hands-on experience with fracking.

“There is a lot of misinformation about fracking,” Jewell said. “I think that localized efforts or statewide efforts in many cases don’t understand the science behind it and I think there needs to be more science.”

“These are very troubling comments,” said Kassie Siegel, who directs the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“In essence Secretary Jewell seems to be saying that communities around the country, the governor and public health commissioner of New York, and the over 600,000 people who wrote to the Interior Department urging her to adopt a ban on fracking, don’t understand the science and are just acting out of an irrational fear of fracking,” Siegel said. “It’s insulting, and quite simply wrong.”

Siegel said “numerous studies” have established the health dangers posed by common oilfield chemicals, and noted that “the oil and gas fields on federal land under her jurisdiction are among the biggest sources of methane and ozone pollution in the United States.”

Jewell said she’s counting on government scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies to “really help us understand what is happening on the landscapes with hydraulic fracturing and also deep water injections, induced seismicity, those kinds of things.”

Oil and gas companies use fracking, or hydraulic fracturing methods to get at reserves that were previously too costly to pursue. Chemical slurries forced into underground rock fissures at high pressure create channels for crude oil and natural gas to flow to surface wells.

“What we need is sound science that is driving our decision-making,” Jewell said, “and as a regulator that is exactly what we’re relying on as we are looking at releasing our own fracking regulations, which are out for public comment.”

After a public meeting in Napa in December, Jewell told KQED that the public is speaking. “They are concerned about this and they want to make sure any kind of oil and gas activity is done safely and responsibly in terms of their water supply and in terms of their communities.”

And where does that responsibility lie?

“That is an industry responsibility,” Jewell said. “I’ve made it very clear to industry that it’s not my job to defend their practices; it’s their job to both ensure their practices are safe and then communicate with communities that their practices are safe.”

“It is not surprising that with state and federal officials in denial,” Siegel said, “Californians are taking action at the local level to protect themselves from all the perils of oil and gas drilling, and this is a trend that will continue.”

Certainly there are more local measures in the works. The Los Angeles city attorney is drafting a moratorium for consideration by the city council, and officials in Monterey County are also considering placing a fracking ban on the ballot in 2015.

  • Tim Ruggiero

    Jewell is a petroleum engineer by trade and training, so I can’t help but think she’s seriously biased right from the get. That said, those of us who have been forced to live with fracking and all it’s effects are not ‘misinformed’, not do we need some Industry mouthpiece to tell us how ‘safe’ it is. It isn’t safe. It’s dangerous and dirty operation that has no business being anywhere near homes, schools, parks and playgrounds, yet operators continue to install drill sites as close as 200 feet away from a home. Who the hell wants a drill site in their backyard? And how will Industry ‘educating’ us on the ‘science’ involved make this better? It won’t.

    • FrackmanGasser

      And what qualifications does Siegel have to make a claim? A bunch of unreferenced reports that are ‘peer reviewed’? Cite these reports, particularly the credentials of the authors, and who the peer reviewers were, and their credentials.

    • Jack Wells

      Take a deep breath, Tim. God forbid you would want to listen to someone that has training and experience regarding a subject. How dare you assume that anyone who knows something is “biased” because they disagree with your emotional, lazy point of view. I say lazy because there is lots of real information out there about fracking and you don’t seem to have dared to look at anything that might cause you to doubt your preconceived notions. Contrary to your posts, regulations on fracking have existed for a long time. Try this state government site for starters .. http://iogcc.publishpath.com/hydraulic-fracturing

      • Tim Ruggiero

        Get yourself a drill site 300 feet from your back door like I did, and then let’s talk about how I don’t understand the ‘science’ behind it. Put up with metal on metal clanging and engine brakes screeching 24/7, blasted with huge plumes of diesel exhaust, stadium lighting all night long and dozens of semi trucks running and then finally lose 75% of your property value, then you can explain to me all that ‘science’ I don’t ‘understand’.

        • Mark Duffett

          What you’re saying is you don’t want any sort of industrial activity near you at all. None of the activities you mention have anything specifically to do with fracking per se.

          • Tim Ruggiero

            “Fracking” is synonymous with natural gas development.

  • rand

    “What we need is sound science that is driving our decision-making,” Jewell said, “and as a regulator that is exactly what we’re relying on…”

    Argh. The whole discussion about the safety of fracking misses one scientific input to “decision-making”: Science says we shouldn’t be exploring for more fossil fuels — we have x5 more than we can burn, due to something left out of this interview: the climate crisis. It’s like discussing the safety of nuclear or biologic weapons… The answer is simple: DON”T. A global ban on fracking is scientifically called for, and has been for decades.

    I applaud all the focus on the safety and pollution problems with fracking. It’s nasty and dangerous. Fracking which invokes NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) should also invoke NOPE (“Not On Planet Earth”). But even if fracking was made perfectly safe and pollution-free (which it can’t), the scientific input to “Decision-making” is to immediately ban it globally. It’s purpose is to burn more fossil fuel, and that is cooking the planet. Just ask any climatologist. We can get all of our energy needs from renewable solar, wind and water. Just ask Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson (see thesolutionsproject.org/). Support Bay Area climate efforts, go to 350BayArea.org or statewide antifracking efforts: californiansagainstfracking.org

    • Willis James

      Yes, because green-minded Bay Area residents don’t need fuel for their vehicles. They do quite well in their Leafs and such.
      And ALL the power they need is easily found in solar panels….

      Oh, to be so green, it must be a wonderful feeling they share with each other.

    • FrackmanGasser

      How does science support your claim? It’s demand that drives the exploration for fossil fuels – drilling does not force consumption. Market economics determine the kind of energy demanded. If solar or wind were economically viable, they would have won in the marketplace without the massive subsidies they receive. A

  • Andrew Alden

    I agree with Kassie Siegel’s interpretation: Bans on hydraulic fracturing and other modern technology are being driven by “irrational fear of fracking.” Secretary Jewell has experience in the industry, and she’s the former CEO of wilderness-loving REI. Kassie Siegel’s salary depends on her painting gray as black-and-white. I know whose judgment I prefer.

    • Pamela Zuppo

      Kassie Siegel did not state what you suggest she did. To wit: “In essence Secretary Jewell seems to be saying that communities around the country, the governor and public health commissioner of New York, and the over 600,000 people who wrote to the Interior Department urging her to adopt a ban on fracking, don’t understand the science and are just acting out of an irrational fear of fracking,” Siegel said. “It’s insulting, and quite simply wrong.”

      Furthermore, Ms. Siegel supports all the studies that have clearly demonstrated the public health problems related to gas and oil fracking. Indeed, the largest study to date was executed by the state of New York Department of Health. The 184-page report, cites potential environmental impacts and health hazards as reasons for the state’s recent fracking ban. The research incorporates findings from multiple studies conducted across the country.

      Perhaps you should read it to educate yourself. Here’s a link where you can download the report and learn something beyond your own uninformed opinion: https://www.health.ny.gov/press/reports/docs/high_volume_hydraulic_fracturing.pdf

      • Andrew Alden

        Thank you for the link. The report cites lack of information as a reason for caution. As you say, *potential* impacts and hazards. It is a sound expression of scientific ignorance, not certainty.

      • FrackmanGasser

        Just plain wrong. THe NY decision was completely political. Zucker is only ACTING health commissioner; his job depends completely on giving Cuomo the answer he needed to placate the far left. Dr. Theodore Them is a specialist in environmental medicine working at Guthrie, the 19th
        largest health care system in the United States. Dr. Them lives in
        Bradford County, PA, within five miles of 100+ Marcellus Shale gas
        wells. Dr. Them was on a recent radio program (link below) to discuss the so-called “health impacts” report recently delivered by New York State Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker

        http://marcellusdn.podbean.com/e/jlcny-interviews-dr-theodore-them-on-new-york-health-study-critical-of-fracking/

        Dr. Them himself compiled a report on the health impacts of shale
        drilling (or lack thereof), based on data from Ohio, West Virginia and
        Pennsylvania. Dr. Them’s published report was completely ignored by
        Zucker and not referenced in Zucker’s final report. Instead, Zucker
        quotes from unpublished reports funded by anti-drilling groups.

        Dr. Them has an advanced degree in public health – the “gold
        standard” for any physician who is qualified to research and evaluate
        “public health” impacts. Dr. Howard Zucker? He’s a pediatrician and
        anesthesiologist! Zucker does NOT have an MPH as does Dr. Them.

      • Jack Wells

        The cover letter to the New York document says: ” In this instance, however, the overall weight of the evidence from the
        cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect
        public health.” Evidence of uncertainties? There are so many mays and likelihoods here that it becomes clear that this is a political document. I read your cited document. Now you should check out the EPA study, the movie Fracknation, and the Interstate OIl and Gas Compact Administration (http://iogcc.publishpath.com/hydraulic-fracturing ).

  • Mike Smith

    I live in San Benito and voted against Measure J: the ‘fracking ban’ because ‘fracking isn’t being practiced. San Luis Obispo was far more pragmatic; they refused to support a ban for similar reasons and felt they could deal with the application if it ever presented itself.

    I’ve worked as a water utility operator for 25 years, researched all the so-called claims about threats to the water supply and found them to be bogus. Senate Bill 4, recently confirmed by the State of California, will be the strictest environmental controls in the United States. SB4 requires scientific study which is forthcoming.

    The Center for Biological Diversity is a duplicitous, fear-mongering, radical and extremist environmental organization which is against all resource use by humans in favor of rats and lizards. They don’t support solar power plants either and have sued to stop them too.

    • edwinareed

      Thanks for your comments. I have done some studying and research myself. There is no way we can go completely off the electric grid with solar, wind, and water and have round the clock, day after day stability and reliability. Clean natural gas and responsible carbon capture programs are the most economic and sensible reality along WITH solar and wind as practical. I am a California energy ratepayer who believes that people should be free to choose whatever energy they want but without public subsidies. The sooner our state public utilities commission redesigns the rate structures to make them more equitable for all, the better.

  • Rose

    Fracking is horrific to the planet that has sustained us. Sally Jewel is a pawn who ignores THOUSANDS of Americans asking for her to pay attention to issues, she is either brainwashed or in the pockets of oil industry.
    I feel sorry for the Americans who have no clean water, and am greatful to the scientist working right now on solutions to have us be far less oil dependant.
    Fracking waste is the reason Californias water supply was cut off. Look it up.

  • Lauren Swain

    I guess a breathing a little benzene and formaldehyde everyday is good for everyone and no cause for concern? This industry is exempt from the Clean Air Act and other federal laws we depend on for our health and safety and Jewell can’t find any reason for worry? http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/dangerously-high-levels-of-airborne-carcinogens-found-at-us-fracking-sites-9826586.html

  • wozy

    Maybe Secretary Sally Jewell should venture out into the real world. West Virginia and North Dakota are witnessing the terrible results of fracking engineering that Ms. Jewell naively supports with out referring to the facts on the ground and the health and environmental science behind NYS’s decision not to frack. By narrowly looking at the theory of fracking from the business end she does a disservice to the families, schools and towns that live with negative impacts of fracking everyday.

    http://appalachianchronicle.com/2015/01/01/clarksburg-newspaper-editorial-an-affront-to-west-virginians/

  • winnaford

    Idiot libs, the state of New York with their 7 year study and their anti-fracking mumbo jumbo don’t know anything about science! We need to get our info from the industry, they never ever use “Science” to deceive the public.

    • Tim Ruggiero

      You do realize the very same PR firm (Hill & Knowlton) that produced that series of posters is the same PR firm that represents Big Oil & Gas? http://www.halliburtonwatch.org/news/eid.html

      • winnaford

        I didn’t but that is hilarious.

  • EllisWyatt

    Oil would destroy California forever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summerland,_California

  • Liz Stephen Hamilton

    Should shut off gas supply to communities/states that can’t stomach it. No need to force dirtry energy on them if they don’t want it.

  • Its nice to see someone in the administration stand up to the Left’s War on Science.

Author

Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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