Fracking California: Putting Water and the Environment at Risk

California is currently positioned to become the next hub of hydraulic fracturing—also known as “fracking.” In FERN’s latest story, “Nervous Energy,” in the April 2014 issue of Sunset magazine, reporter Barry Yeoman explains that the practice’s demand for water and its environmental impact in other states has locals who live atop the 1,750-square-mile, oil-rich Monterey Shale asking questions.

Fracking entails drilling deep beneath the earth’s surface and horizontally across the rock, then pumping water, chemicals, and sand underground to fracture the shale and free up the fuel. The controversial practice has also been a heated source of debate for California’s state government, as Amy Quinton at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento explains in a companion radio story featured today on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

In the Sunset article, Yeoman tells the story of Paula and Paul Getzelman, wine growers in California’s San Antonio Valley, land that is part of the Monterey Shale. The Getzelmans rely on the local water system for their grapes, and worry that the risks of fracking will outweigh the benefits. “What we have in that vineyard is dependent on water,” Getzelman tells Yeoman. “If our water is decimated, both in quality and quantity, we pretty much have no fallback position. Once the water is gone, you can’t reclaim it.”

Some see fracking as key to the United States’ energy independence. Government studies, though disputed, estimate that the Monterey Shale contains 13.7 billion barrels of oil recoverable through fracking, three times more than the Bakken Shale, a formation currently being exploited in North Dakota. With that estimate comes predictions of 2.8 million jobs in California and $24.6 billion in state and local taxes during the peak year of 2020.

But as Yeoman writes: “Fracking and related activities have also been linked to water and air pollution, human health problems ranging from asthma to low birthweight babies, wildlife habitat disruption, and boomtown ills such as homelessness and crime. Environmental activists warn that these problems could plague California if the Monterey Shale is exploited.”

The main issue, Yeoman reports, is the overall lack of research on the technique and its impacts. It can take decades or longer before fracking chemicals migrate far enough in groundwater to be detected, he explains. He points out, however, that water contamination in Texas (resulting in elevated levels of arsenic, selenium, and strontium, sometimes exceeding the government’s safety thresholds) and Pennsylvania (where methane and other gases have been detected in water wells) have both been tied to fracking.

“The weakest links in the safety chain, according to experts, are the steel casings and cement that line the wells underground,” reports Yeoman. “They’re designed to isolate harmful chemicals from the surrounding environment, but they’re far from infallible—6 to 7 percent of new wells drilled in Pennsylvania over a three-year period had ‘compromised structural integrity.’” In addition, some scientists fear that in California, seismic activity could increase chances of well failure.

Last year, California’s legislature passed a measure allowing hydraulic fracturing and another process called acid stimulation, but putting in place more regulations and mandating an independent study on the “hazards and risks” of these techniques due by January 1, 2015.

A companion report by Capitol Public Radio Environment Reporter Amy Quinton looks in detail at how fracking is regulated by the state of California. While new regulations like groundwater monitoring before, during and after fracking, and notifying the neighbors of wells are more extensive than in other states, environmentalists argue that its not enough to protect citizens. She quotes Brian Nowicki with the Center for Biological Diversity, who says that regulators are relying on other agencies to monitor air pollutants and water contamination, and that these regulations don’t restrict how much water is used in the process or deal with seismic risk.

You can read the full report here at Sunset, listen to the report here on Capital Public Radio and read the story here on our Web site. FERN has also previously reported on fracking in North Dakota and its impact on livestock here. More resources on fracking are available here.

FERN and Sunset Magazine will be co-hosting a free panel discussion on fracking in California and what it means for the future of farming in the Monterey shale on May 7th, which will be moderated by Sam Fromartz, FERN’s Editor-in-Chief, and featuring Barry Yeoman, Paula Getzleman and Amy Quinton. More info is available here.