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Hydraulic fracking in California: New report addresses potential water impacts

Jayni Foley Hein, former director, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment | April 12, 2013

Today, Berkeley Law released a new report on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in California, focusing on wastewater and potential water quality impacts. The report, “Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in California: A Wastewater and Water Quality Perspective,” is an independent analysis produced by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) through its new initiative, the Wheeler Institute for Water Law & Policy (Wheeler Institute).

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting fluids under high pressure to crack underground rocks and release tightly held oil or gas. The hydraulic fracturing process also yields byproducts, including wastewater, which must be properly managed in order to reduce any risk to human health and the environment.

Co-authored with Wheeler Institute associate director Michael Kiparsky, the report notes that while oil and gas producers have used fracking in California for many years, we are witnessing potentially alarming projections of dramatically increased fracking activity in California due to the availability of new fracturing techniques.

The report comes out at a time of intense activity and interest in California in fracking. On April 8, a federal judge issued the first major ruling in a California fracking lawsuit, finding that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to adequately consider the risks presented by fracking in its issuance of oil and gas leases on federal lands. And the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is currently undergoing a pre-rulemaking process with stakeholders, gathering information that will influence new and revised regulations. Nine bills on fracking have been introduced in California’s current legislative session, several lawsuits have been filed, and there is surging public attention on to the issue.

Contrary to its traditional role as a leader in environmental protection, California lags behind other states on hydraulic fracturing regulation. Wyoming, Colorado, and other states currently set stronger standards for transparency, safety, and environmental stewardship.

The risks presented by hydraulic fracturing include potential contamination of ground and surface waters from well casing failure, improper fluid handling at the well site, and improper treatment and discharge of fracking “produced water” that contains harmful substances. Additional risks include the potential for induced seismicity from injection wells, as experienced in other states, and potential air quality and climate change impacts, which are especially relevant to the development of oil-rich shale formations in California.

While some peer-reviewed studies on risks to the environment and human health from fracking exist, there is a need for additional research. In the face of such scientific uncertainty, our own report urges caution, greater transparency, and increased accountability for oil and gas operators.

First, to enable public participation and drive greater accountability, regulatory agencies and the public require comprehensive information on where, when, and how fracking will occur in the State. While the applicability of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) environmental review and public participation process is litigated in court, we support near-term changes to the current regulations, including:

  • At least 30 days advanced public notice of all fracking events, included the full list of chemicals to be used in fracking fluid;
  • Mailed notice to all property owners near planned fracking or injection sites;
  • Baseline testing of water quality in aquifers near oil and gas production activity, to enable tracing potential contamination to operators and assess pre-fracking water quality; and
  • Development of a formal process by which concerned citizens can respond to planned fracking events.

Second, we urge better inter-agency coordination and planning to prepare for and mitigate the harmful effects of fracking. We recommend:

  • Increased engagement among DOGGR, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), Regional Water Quality Control Boards, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), all of which have jurisdiction over some aspects of unconventional oil and gas development in the State; and
  • More peer-reviewed studies on the risks presented to California water sources from fracking, the risk of induced seismic events, and potential air quality and climate change impacts.

Third, we recommend better tracking and handling of fracking wastewater to protect against potential water impacts, including:

  • Requiring more extensive recordkeeping and reporting on the disposal of fracking wastewater;
  • Considering the use of unique chemical tracers placed into fracking fluid to aid in identifying potential contamination events and assessing liability;
  • Providing clear information on how fracking produced water may be safely reused or recycled to reduce pressure on California’s water supply;
  • Prohibiting the discharge of fracking wastewater to publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs), at least until EPA issues pretreatment guidelines; and
  • Requiring more stringent regulation and enforcement of fluid storage and handling at well sites.

Historically, California has set the bar for environmental protection and stewardship. With mounting public attention to the issue,we urge the State to take a proactive stance to protect our environment in the face of uncertainty.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Hydraulic fracking in California: New report addresses potential water impacts

  1. Ken and Michael,
    Problem is that Berkeley depts trained in the field are funded(read: purchased)by the field. So follow the money. It’s notorious that Universities do not publish for the public good. They publish in favor of big money interests.

  2. California is a huge state, rich in many resources. If they were to invest in say solar power, or wind energy, instead of endangering water resources today and for future generations, it would not only be beneficial for the state, but also would set a good example to other states and countries.

  3. Everyone is very concern about fracking and oil. The concern is a constant preoccupation, that leads to less and less influence. Please be wise, act on by influencing your habits first, stop driving! Let us be honest here, stop driving, flying, stop using plastic. That is the way to stop the oil madness. We are the ones consuming it, we are creating the demand! Promote ways to stop using oil all together, then all the fracking will not be needed.

  4. (As a native Californian and Cherokee,) I would like to see more balance in articles on this topic. This article reports a fearful response when a bold stand for economic vitality is despesparately needed. Having watched tens of thousands of jobs shipped oversees on the rubric of “too expensive here”, only a balance of science and foresight in driving a new economic opportunity will help us recover from four decades of hubris.

    Californians can be proud of the relatively low number of problems in the oil fields and just as proud that California is the sixth largest producer of energy products. Carpe diem.

  5. Fracking in California is set to boom because of our government’s desire to become energy independent by 2020. That is our national energy policy and it was developed by Dick Cheney in all those secret meetings with oil company execs soon after the first Bush Administration was in office. California is the 4th largest oil-producing state in the union and fracking is the vehicle by which any and all oil under the surface will be fracked out. This will turn California into a vast industrial wasteland. That is the price. Obama will sell this plan he has taken over from the Bush Admin. by saying it will promote jobs and energy independence. This is hard to refute except for the fact it will ruin the landscape for all time. Fracking must stop–not because it’s harmful–but because it will ruin California. Remember, the oil companies are not about to turn energy use over to the solar and alternative energy people. By the way, the oil will be shipped to China where it will help pay down out trillion-dollar debt to that county.

  6. Oil industry likes to say they’ve been fracking since the 1960s, but the technology for this type of fracking — blasting vast quantities of water, chemicals and sand down 8-10,000 feet and up to 2 miles horizontally at 6-8,000 p.s.i. — did not exist then. It was developed by Halliburton in the early 2000s.

    One point should get more emphasis. By definition, hydraulic fracturing is shattering the subsurface of the earth to release oil and gas. Think breaking a brick with a hammer. That oil and gas has been cushioning our seismic plates for eons. Remove it, and plates slip. In Texas, with virtually no seismic activity before fracking, they are now having hundreds of earthquakes per year.

    The same is true wherever fracking has occurred. However, no one has ever fracked in an area of such hazardous pre-existing seismic activity as California. The destruction they are doing is irrevocable. Is industrial wasteland what we wish to leave our children? Fracking in CA must be stopped.

  7. I would give this report by Berkeley Law more credence if it was produced by or at least in consultation with Berkeley’s geology and or hydrology department. Honestly, what can lawyers tell us about whether hydraulic fracturing is or is not a threat to groundwater sources?

    • I agree. Many Berkeley engineering faculty are experts in this area and should really be consulted. Berkeley needs to maintain its sterling reputation by having experts speak on subjects in their area of expertise. Don’t be afraid to collaborate.

      • Thanks for your comments. My co-author on this report has a background in environmental science, and we worked to synthesize knowledge from a broad range of technical sources. In addition to consulting primary published materials, we consulted with a number of civil engineering professors, geologists, hydrologists, and others with relevant technical expertise. These individuals are listed in the acknowledgments section of the report. I do agree that more interdisciplinary collaboration is something everyone should strive for. We hope this report is a starting point, not the end of research on this important topic.

  8. As a native Californian, now living in Pennsylvania, I have tried to stay alert to Calif. issues. This one particiularly bothers me. I am author of the recently-published book, Fracking Pennsylvania, and see the problems caused by fracking in the Marcellus Shale migrating to the Monterey Shale. The issues and problems are the same–just the names are different.

    If anyone believes fracking is good, please come to Pa. I’d be pleased to arrange for a tour of the gas fields–and talks with the people who are most affected.

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