Cracks in the foundation
Oft-cited argument against fracking ban in Butte County based on misinformation
One of the key arguments made during the local fracking debate was based, at least in part, on an erroneous statement by county officials.
As a draft ordinance to prevent the practice of hydraulic fracturing was debated at public meetings early this year and last year, opponents often argued that a Butte County ban would serve a symbolic rather than regulatory role. The Butte County Department of Development Services (DDS) provided a key piece of evidence for that argument: No one, they said, had applied for a conditional use permit to drill a new gas well in more than 25 years.
But the CN&R has learned that for 22 of those 25 years, conditional use permits weren’t sought from the county for a simple reason: They weren’t required. Butte County didn’t call for conditional use permits for gas-well drilling until it adopted a new zoning code on Nov. 6, 2012.
No one has applied for a conditional use permit involving any gas-drilling technique in the 31 months the requirement has been in place. But at least five permits for new gas wells were granted by the state during the previous 22-year period.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injection of water mixed with toxic chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock formations, and small frack jobs have been reported in neighboring counties, but not in Butte. Many of the citizens who have testified at county meetings worry that either the act of fracking or the disposal of waste could endanger the Tuscan Aquifer and future drinking-water supplies.
The statement that the county hadn’t granted permits for gas extraction in more than a quarter century appeared in a DDS PowerPoint presentation and was reiterated by officials from other departments at public meetings. It was repeated at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 10, when the panel voted against adopting an ordinance to ban fracking, and it was restated by media outlets.
Given the impassioned nature of the local debate over hydraulic fracturing, it’s not surprising that there’s some disagreement as to the extent that the no-new-permits declaration shaped the debate and its outcome.
“It was totally and completely deceptive,” said Dave Garcia, a founding member and spokesman for Frack-Free Butte County, the citizens’ coalition that is working to ban fracking locally.
Todd Greene, a Chico State geologist who has provided testimony on fracking at public meetings, said it was “confusing” and in need of “qualification,” but that it was an inadvertent oversight.
“It’s important to keep in mind the big picture,” Greene said. “Their overall point is this is not a gas-drilling county. If people are concerned about fracking, there still isn’t fracking going on here.”
Butte County does have 32 gas wells that are productive or idle, but its natural-gas production has been declining for several decades. It has more than 200 abandoned gas wells that have been plugged with cement. So the debate over a fracking ban has often centered on whether the practice will happen in the first place.
Greene says geology and economics are major obstacles right now. “I’m not saying fracking won’t or can’t happen here,” Greene told supervisors before they took their final vote, “but it’s not economically viable now. Gas would have to be pretty high-priced, and there are other places people would go first.”
In a recent interview, DDS Director Tim Snellings maintained that its no-new-permits statement wasn’t deliberately obfuscating. “I know we did not intentionally mislead anyone,” he said. “We worked with the information we had at the time. I don’t think this is confusing because what we said is true.”
The statement has wrought confusion because of new wells that were drilled in Butte County some 15 years ago that have been reported by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which is part of the state’s Department of Conservation and is charged with overseeing gas and oil extraction throughout the state.
“Determining how many natural-gas-production wells have been drilled in the last 25 years would require a significant amount of research,” Donald Drysdale, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation, wrote in an email. “What we can say with confidence … is that at least five natural gas wells have been drilled in the county since 1999.”
Drysdale noted that three of those five wells have been shut down. Two of the wells, named “Pirate” and “Volcano” and drilled by Alanmar Energy in the Perkins Lake gas field near Durham, are still active.
Those wells sounded the alarm for Garcia recently as he was poking around the DOGGR site in an effort to understand why Butte County’s gas production had increased briefly around 1998. Garcia wondered why no conditional use permits had been granted for those wells by Butte County. So he emailed a two-page letter to Snellings and asked the department to “explain the incorrect data of ‘no new permits in 25 years.’” Garcia explained the information he’d found on DOGGR’s site.
Snellings wrote back, and according to an email provided by Garcia, outlined the steps the county would take to regulate drilling and declined to meet with Garcia.
The supervisors have since banned the disposal of fracking waste in Butte County. And Snellings said that his department will clarify the no-new-permits statement later this year, when the supervisors will consider adopting a use-permit requirement specifically for fracking.
Snellings and DDS Assistant Director Pete Calarco indicated they were surprised when Garcia brought the Pirate and Volcano wells to their attention.
“I don’t think we were aware that the state had these two wells listed,” Snellings said. “And in our examination of what happened … we went back and looked at our history … that’s when we discovered that permits were not required. That’s kind of the path.”
In a recent email, Calarco stressed that the regulations being adopted by the county mean that gas-drilling projects are now required to meet California Environmental Quality Act standards.
DOGGR has only recently begun regulating hydraulic fracturing, and environmentalists like Garcia argue that the agency is too friendly with the oil-and-gas industry. He also believes that county officials are ill-prepared to help regulate drilling activity.
In June 2016, a Frack-Free Butte County initiative that would ban fracking will appear on the ballot. County Counsel Bruce Alpert has said the ordinance drafted by citizens may not withstand a court challenge, but Garcia says that even if the ordinance is imperfect, it’s the best option.