It's toxic. It's contributing to climate change. And it's happening all over California — with little regulation
Yet the ruling has no effect on the oil wells already dotting the landscape in places like Kern County, an area already marked by poor air quality that supports the highest concentration of fracking operations in California. And for every acre of federal land now tied up in court, there are thousands more private parcels susceptible to being radically altered by fracking.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the Monterey shale formation, which extends from the northern San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles County and westward to the coast, holds more than 15 billion barrels of oil.
It's an astounding quantity that dwarfs that of the Bakken Formation, which has helped light up North Dakota's economy with a fracking boom, or the Eagle Ford Shale in West Texas, each of which are estimated to contain between 3 and 4 billion barrels.
NO SPECIAL PERMIT REQUIRED
Once a company has obtained a permit to extract oil and gas, "the state doesn't require companies to get a permit to frack," explains Scow, so it's unknown just how much it's currently happening. Voluntarily reported industry data shows that at least 91 wells were fracked in California between January 2011 and April 2012. Yet in 2011 alone, state records show, 2,294 new wells were drilled, while 3,376 notices were filed to "rework" existing wells.
In California, oil and gas drilling is regulated by the Division of Oil and Gas Resources. Speaking at a forum at the Commonwealth Club hosted by Climate One on April 2, Mark Nechodom, director of the California Department of Conservation, said DOGR never required reporting on fracking because it's "one short blip" in oil production.
"In our historical use of fracturing in California, we have had no evidence that there is any environmental damage or hazard to human health—no evidence, I am saying—and therefore we have not required reporting," said Nechodom, whose agency presides over DOGR. "Now we are requiring reporting and we are in the middle of developing a regulation for that."
Nevertheless, the prospect of a pending California fracking boom on top of the loosely regulated activity already underway has galvanized Bay Area environmentalists. A host of environmental organizations are planning to form a coalition in the next several weeks to push for a permanent ban on fracking, targeting Gov. Jerry Brown.
Unchecked fracking could unleash a host of problems, says Scow, including a high risk of tainted groundwater, harmful air emissions, a spike in atmospheric carbon from the release of underground methane, and possibly even more frequent earthquakes due to wastewater disposal deep below the earth's surface, which can destabilize faults.
"The process is just too dangerous," he says. "There's no safe way to frack. In the long term, we want fracking banned."
OIL AND WATER
Policy discussions about fracking often arrive at the "Halliburton loophole." In 2005, the story goes, when the federal Energy Bill was being drafted under the Bush Administration, then-Vice President Dick Cheney orchestrated the inclusion of a perplexing provision exempting "hydraulic fracturing" from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Cheney famously presided over Halliburton, a company that invented a precursor to modern-day fracking in the 1940s. Few understood what it meant at the time, but the ascendance of fracking has made it clear that the loophole amounted to a munificent gift to the oil industry, clearing the way for rigs to bore downward and outward with toxic underground fluid injections unencumbered by regulatory slowdowns — all to the detriment of safe drinking water.
"The Safe Drinking Water Act loophole has really created a problem for us," Steve Craig, an olive rancher from Monterey County, noted while speaking at the Commonwealth Club panel.