Hydraulic fracturing: A technique safely used for decades

There is lots of talk in California lately about hydraulic fracturing, but here is a headline you might have missed: the boost in U.S. oil and natural gas production made possible by this technology is keeping the American economy out of another recession. That’s the latest word from analysts at Bank of America, who note that “energy is beginning to carry America,” and who calculate that this increased production adds about $1 billion to the economy every day.

Energy can help carry California, too, through the tremendous economic and fiscal challenges facing the state. All that is needed is the continued commitment of industry representatives, state regulators, elected officials and citizens to work together constructively on ways to responsibly develop California’s abundant natural resources.

By combining hydraulic fracturing —  a technology that’s been safely used to develop oil, gas and geothermal energy for six decades — and horizontal drilling, energy companies can access oil and gas trapped in deep shale formations thousands of feet underground. That has sparked an energy production and manufacturing renaissance in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota and Colorado. But one of the richest shale resources in the country lies beneath California. In fact, the Monterey Shale – located 1.5 to 2.5 miles below parts of Southern California – may contain as many as 15 billion barrels of oil, according to federal estimates. That’s enough home-grown energy to eliminate foreign oil imports into the state for more than 50 years.

Besides energy security, responsibly developing shale and other “tight” reservoirs has proven economic, employment, revenue and environmental benefits. The natural gas alone from these formations added $133 billion to national GDP in 2010, according to analyst firm IHS CERA. It also supported more than one million jobs and generated more than $30 billion in revenue for local, state and federal governments. These numbers (which don’t include oil production), are rising fast and there is no reason why California can’t share in the growth. After all, as Governor Jerry Brown has said, California is already the “fourth largest oil producing state, and we want to continue that.” As for the environmental benefits, clean-burning natural gas recently toppled coal as the number-one fuel in America’s power plants. As a result, the U.S. has cut carbon dioxide emissions close to 1990 levels, the same goal as contained in California’s AB 32 global warming law.

Despite all these benefits, however, the debate over hydraulic fracturing in California has been dominated so far by the baseless and sometimes hysterical claims of fringe activist groups, such as Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch. They allege that oil and gas production from shale formations is unsafe, unregulated, a threat to drinking water, and an activity that’s bound to trigger damaging earthquakes. Worse, the activists have used these scary stories to intimidate some local governments into hastily passing symbolic “bans” on hydraulic fracturing. The citizens of California deserve better, especially when energy development from shale could help bring the state’s economy, job market and budget back from the brink. They deserve a debate based on facts.

Here are a few facts to get things started: Senior Obama administration officials – including White House energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal – have repeatedly said hydraulic fracturing is a safe technology.  The truth is the technology has , been used more than a million times since the 1940s, and the activity is  tightly regulated covered by overlapping state and federal environmental laws. According to Stanford University geophysics professor Mark Zoback: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply.” That’s because thousands of feet and billions of tons of rock separate deep shale formations from shallow drinking water aquifers. Zoback’s view is supported by state and federal environmental regulators, including U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

As for earthquakes, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences found hydraulic fracturing “does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.” That’s because the amount of energy used in the hydraulic fracturing process is, according to Professor Zoback, “the equivalent to a gallon of milk falling off the kitchen counter.”

California’s oil and gas industry is ready to engage lawmakers, regulators and citizens in a fact-based debate about hydraulic fracturing. But let’s consult with experts, gather the best peer-reviewed science available, and make decisions based on evidence rather than myths, sound bites, unsupported allegations and propaganda.

Ed’s Note: Dave Quast is the California director of Energy in Depth, a scientific and industry group that provides information about energy exploration.

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