Fracking Industry Eyes An Already Water-Starved California

Even as California reels from drought, fracking companies are lusting after the state's oil-infused shale.
By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    At a time when the fracking industry is eyeing California’s Monterey Shale formation, state residents are already in the midst of a drought and subsequent water war that’s led to water theft between communities, a dilemma that’s gone so far as to shut down a Eureka, Calif. elementary school.

    The school’s water supply was stolen during the state’s drought, representing a phenomenon common as residents aim to fill their own tanks.

    “There were tire tracks in the field on the south side of the school,” Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Steve Knight told the Times Standard. “The school staff believes someone climbed the fence, and used a school garden hose to drain the tank.”

    Without water, the school had to close its doors — and while it’s an unexpected scenario, experts say it’s a trend that’s likely to continue. Residents throughout the state’s Central Valley, home to California’s agricultural industry, have already seen their wells go dry.

    Cases like that aren’t stopping state legislators from moving ahead with Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D). The bill is portrayed as one intended to regulate the fracking industry, but in reality, it gives the industry a green light to begin the process without environmental review, which would identify threats to local water sources.

    “Senate Bill 4, already a seriously flawed bill, has been further undermined and does not protect Californians from the threats that fracking poses to our water, air and communities,” Adam Scow, California campaign director for Food and Water Watch, said in a press release. “It’s time for Senator Pavley to drop this bill.”


    Water supplies are dropping as fracking comes to town

    “Water levels are dropping dramatically in some areas,” Steven Arthur, vice president for Arthur and Orum Well Drilling, told the Sacramento Bee. “It’s never been this bad.”

    According to the U.S. Geological Survey, California’s San Joaquin Valley, along with the Central Coast and Southern California areas are in crisis mode, as more water is being drawn from groundwater supplies than the amount of water entering the system.

    The desperation expressed in the state’s water wars doesn’t bode well for the oil and gas industry, eager to put down the welcome mat for fracking operations.

    In 2010, California’s agricultural exports amounted to $10 billion, the largest in the nation. With so much at stake for the state’s king industry — which requires an abundance of water — the idea of the fracking industry moving in with full force is a concern for farmers. One fracking well uses roughly 4 million gallons of water.

    In frack-heavy Texas, communities have already seen their water supplies depleted as a direct result of the fracking industry. In August, residents of Barnhart, Texas woke up one morning to discover their community well had run dry. They blamed the fracking industry within the community.


    Eyeing the Monterey

    The Monterey shale formation is estimated to hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil, more than reserves estimated in North Dakota’s Bakken oil region. While that oil was inaccessible in the past, fracking technology has opened the doors for the industry, providing the tools needed to extract the shale oil.

    In April, environmental organizations won a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management after the federal government leased land in California to oil companies for the purpose of fracking. Without an environmental impact study conducted first, the BLM’s actions technically violated the law.

    The BLM had leased 1,700 acres of the Monterey Formation, with plans to continue the leasing process.

    The legal victory proved to be huge for the environmental and agricultural community, as it put a moratorium on drilling in the 2,500 acres of Monterey Formation.

    Senate Bill 4 seeks to rollover that moratorium by imposing regulations on the industry — a move seen as an attempt to appease environmentalists, but also opening the scene for fracking.

    While the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit, it was supported by California’s agricultural industry, a key consumer of water and a source of revenue in the state. The wine industry, too, supported the lawsuit, as the Monterey Formation sits below some of the nation’s most renowned vineyards.

    “This is where that whole conversation of fracking comes up,” Schief Vineyards’ Kurt Gollnick told California Public Radio. “Most of it is locked inside the shale rock. But recently, oil companies have gotten a lot better at getting oil out of shale, thanks to hydraulic fracturing.”


    How likely is fracking?

    California’s Senate Bill 4 is like other fracking regulatory bills recently passed throughout the nation, including Illinois. It establishes a regulatory system that requires companies to disclose chemicals used in the process — unless they want to label them a “trade secret.”

    Other provisions of the bill require the creation of a regulatory process and environmental reviews that would come after the fact, giving the industry a green light to move ahead in the meantime.

    Food and Water Watch, along with, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity, are standing against key amendments in the bill that, in their eyes, water down the bill to appease the oil industry.

    Those organizations are supported by more than 200,000 petitions signed by residents throughout the state, urging Gov. Jerry Brown (R) to reject the new bill.

    “The bill was amended on the Assembly floor on Friday in ways that undermine existing environmental law and leave Californians unprotected from fracking and other dangerous and extreme fossil fuel extraction techniques,” Food and Water Watch states in its press release.

    The amendments include language that removes the need for an environmental review, claiming reviews aren’t required if the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) determines the proposed fracking activity meets requirements implemented through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

    “This provision could be used by DOGGR to bypass CEQA’s bedrock environmental review and mitigation requirements. This language could also prevent air and water boards, local land use jurisdictions and other agencies from carrying out their own CEQA reviews of fracking,” Food and Water Watch states in its press release.

    There are also concerns that the new provision would open the doors to fracking before regulations are finalized, expected in 2015. Organizations claim it could block Gov. Brown from instituting a moratorium before 2015.

    “With the new amendments added, Senator Pavley’s weak fracking bill has gone over the edge and become dangerous,” Zack Malitz, CREDO Action’s campaign manager, said in a press release. “If this bill passes as amended, it will allow the fracking industry to shoot holes in CEQA, potentially exempted fracking from our state’s most important environmental. It’s time or Senator Fran Pavley to withdraw this hopelessly compromised bill.”

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    • Kevin Schmidt

      California should outlaw all fracking and instead give tax breaks to clean, safe, inexpensive alternative forms of energy production. Within just a couple years, California energy costs could become the lowest in the nation, and like alternative energy friendly Germany, gain a competitive advantage for businesses located in the state.

    • Observer

      Need some fact checking here! You mean 15 billion (not million) barrels of oil in the Monterey Formation. And as for ag, fracking is indeed a threat but it is far from the “king” industry in California. Ag ranks somewhere between 16 and 19 in the top economic catgories in the state, so let’s not lapse into familiar truisms please.

      • Kevin Schmidt

        You need some comprehension checking here!

        “In 2010, California’s agricultural exports amounted to $10 billion, the largest in the nation.”

        Translation for sixth grade comprehension abilities:
        California has the largest agricultural export business in the nation.

        So let’s not lapse into illiteracy here.