‘Fracking’ at heart of dispute over Calif. oil exploration

There’s a lot more than farming going on in California’s vast Central Valley.


The Valley may be the richest farm belt in the world, but from Kern to Stanislaus counties it’s also Ground Zero for the debate over “fracking”


Nearly a dozen new pieces of legislation are under study in the Capitol to place stricter environmental controls on “fracking,” or high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, in which streams of water, sand and chemicals are shot into underground rock formations to pry loose petroleum deposits. a process that has been used for decades.


Regulations also are being crafted, a delicate balancing act in part because of the need for oil companies to protect proprietary information and environmentalists seeking tight monitoring.


A lot’s at stake. Most tempting is the estimated 15.4 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale, a vast pool of oil under the Central Valley, stretching mostly on the west side of the Valley from Kern County in the south to Stanislaus County in the north.


It’s a tempting prize.


Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, has called development of the Monterey Shale a “game changer” that could lead to half a million new jobs, and billions of dollars in revenue for the state. Exploration could “create as many as 512,000 jobs in 2015 and more than 2.8 million new jobs by 2020, increasing the number of jobs in the state between 2.1percent to 10.0 percent.”


While it’s gone on for years here in California and in other states like Virginia, Wyoming and Texas, an overall lack of state regulations and industrial accountability, as well as a growing numbers of environmental accidents, have made “fracking” hotly controversial.


And with good reason. Fracking has resulted in a variety of spills that that have harmed communities and injured crops and wildlife, and it has been the catalyst for other ongoing environmental and legal issues that have plagued fracking as a fuel-collection process.


Despite those problems, the petroleum industry notes that scientists, state regulators, federal officials and senior members of the Obama administration have stated that hydraulic fracturing is a fundamentally safe technology that’s been used across the country since the 1940s. Gov. Brown also has expressed his confidence in state regulators to oversee the continued development of California’s oil and gas resources.


On March 8, a federal judge in San Jose halted exploratory drilling in Monterey County, a decision prompted by a suit filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.


U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal said the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a federal statute that requires in-depth studies of projects’ environmental impacts.


However, the potential gains in employment percentages and the possibility of rebuilding a world-class economy makes the numbers behind fracking too seductive to ignore.


A study funded by the Western State Petroleum Association says that fracking in the 1,750 square miles of the Monterey Shale could provide up to 3 million new jobs and make close to $25 billion for the state by 2020.


WSPA spokesman Tupper Hull recently told KQED that, “If hydraulic fracturing proves to be successful here as it’s been elsewhere, it’s an extraordinary optimistic future we’re looking at from an energy point of view.”


Over 17,000 acres of these oil-rich locations have already been sold off to many of the major energy companies, including Chevron, Unocal and Conoco. As the economic and environmental stakes increase, these initial investments are intended create both public and private support for fracking in California.


“The industry has been able to use hydraulic fracturing safely and in an environmentally responsible fashion in order to generate significant oil and gas resources,” says Chevron spokesperson Kurt Glaubitz.


But both sides of the independent energy line have been rather vocal as to what the next move should be.


Some farmers and envirionmentalists believe that despite the desperate need for a better financial foothold, the Golden State’s fragile ecosystem could potentially have the most to lose.


For example, in the very same location as the critical shale formation lies roughly 81,000 vineyards, dairies, farms and other agricultural production sites that have steadily pumped some $43 billion into the state’s economy for years.


Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have been watching this area warily and favor caution in the use of fracking in oil discovery.


“We should be taking a timeout to make sure that these processes are thorough,” says Damon Nagami, NRDC Senior Attorney. “As we’re faced with such a massive environmental undertaking, it’s important to create the strongest safeguards possible before any activity takes place.”


Last week, Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills saw her SB 4 approved 6-2 by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.


Pavley’s bill, which scrutinizes existing fracking standards and calls for more regulations, including permit requests, a 30-day waiting periods prior to drilling and public listings of all chemicals that would be incorporated with the procedures, as the premium example of the kinds of regulations needed for fracking to continue in California.


“These are the kinds of basic protections needed to protect public safety,” she said. “We have already seen contaminated water from other industrial sources sicken people and destroy entire towns in California. We must not repeat this pattern.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects 9th graf by recasting reference to fracking impacts, adds new material to reflect industry and government positions.

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