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California Gets Fracked

Big Oil is rushing to extract fossil fuel from the state's underground shale formation. But will it contaminate — and waste — portions of our water supply?

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"Oil and gas companies are huge — between 2000 and 2010, they made over a trillion dollars," said Adam Scow, California Campaigns director at Food and Water Watch. "They [spent] $4 million to stop [state Assembly Bill] 491, which would have brought transparency on fracking. In Congress, they spend $400,000 a day."

Although the exact amount of fracking that has occurred or is now occurring in California is unclear, new fracking wells are springing up throughout the state. And the officials and agencies responsible for keeping track of what's happening under the ground have given remarkable latitude to Big Oil and Gas, with draft fracking regulations having not appeared in the state until December. Indeed, the state's main regulatory body has shown a startlingly close relationship with energy companies and government officials, from the local level all the way to the governor's office.


Dave Garcia knew a thing or two about fracking. He'd seen the flaming faucet in Gasland, and had read up on the subject. A member of the Sierra Club, he'd kept a close watch on news from around the state. So when he saw trucks rolling in around Chico, heard the construction noise, and saw the activity, his guard was up. As time went by, he grew more and more curious about what was happening. He followed the trucks, snapping pictures of nearby wells.

Unfortunately, when he tried to get more information, he was surprised to find he had few resources at his disposal. That's because the state agency responsible for tracking and regulating hydraulic fracturing has done little to inform the public. Though Garcia was eventually able to confirm the presence of fifteen fracked wells in the Sutter Butte mountain range, fifty miles south of Chico, getting the whole picture has been next to impossible.

In California, fracking is regulated by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), housed within the state Department of Conservation. The agency has permitted fracking without public disclosure of the chemicals used and has limited public access to records about the practice. Close observers describe a inappropriate coziness between DOGGR and the industry. "They're there to help facilitate the extraction of oil and gas," said Bill Allayaud, California director of Governmental Affairs with the Environmental Working Group. "We have contacts in the field, and they often tell us about the relationship between DOGGR and oil industry people working out there. It's not like Fish and Game [or the] Coastal Commission, but more a culture of 'What do you need today, Chevron?'"   

The power and influence of oil and natural gas companies also repeatedly beat back efforts in the state legislature to regulate fracking in California. Then after decades with little oversight, DOGGR released draft regulations concerning fracking in December. State officials immediately hailed the proposed rules.

"The draft regulations build upon the current well construction regulations in California, which are among the strongest in the nation," said Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the state Department of Conservation. "With these rules in place, regulators and the public will have disclosure of hydraulic fracturing details and protection of public health. Also, the oil and gas industry will have a clear set of standards for which they will be accountable when they use hydraulic fracturing."

But many environmental organizations have seized on the public comment period as an opportunity to list the shortcomings in the draft rules. Many groups have quickly come to the conclusion that the proposed regulations are too friendly to industry. Among the criticisms: The rules would only require companies to give a ten-day notice to DOGGR prior before they start fracking. The data a company submits would not be posted on a state website, but on the industry co-sponsored FracFocus website. Public notice of the chemicals used would not be required until sixty days after fracking operations have ceased. Neither the state nor the energy company involved would be required to notify the public that their land will be fracked. Companies would be able to avoid disclosure by claiming "trade secrets."

"There is very little regulatory protection — for example, the only 'new' requirement for fracking wastewater is that it not be stored in 'unlined sumps or pits,'" said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The regulations don't require measures to capture air pollution that increases the risk of cancer, asthma, and other illnesses."

The oil and gas industry, by contrast, appears to be pleased with the proposed rules. "California's proposed regulation would require the disclosure of these chemicals while protecting intellectual property, or trade secrets," wrote Quast of Energy In Depth in a January 14 op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News. "While many additives are everyday chemicals found in household products, others are special additives that oil-field service companies have invested many years and many millions of dollars developing. ... This occurs across the economy. Think of the white glue that was probably accidentally ingested by thousands of elementary school children. It contains man-made chemicals that the company will not disclose to parents but will disclose to doctors if needed."

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