Environmentalists sue California, spark fracking feud

California doesn't regulate this new method of oil and gas exploration, so activists sued

Environmentalists sued the state over what they say is the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources’ rubber-stamping fracking permits and general lack of oversight.

Environmentalists sued the state over what they say is the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources’ rubber-stamping fracking permits and general lack of oversight.

illustration by hayley doshay

Read Cosmo Garvin's cover story on fracking in California (“Oh, frack!” SN&R Feature Story, March 29) at http://tinyurl.com/frackingSNR.

It might lack the big hair and cowboy hats of Dallas, but the latest dustup between California’s oilmen and environmentalists is certainly dramatic.

In October, a group of activists sued the state’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources over fracking, the controversial type of oil and gas exploration that involves blasting water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground.

Activists believe state regulators are basically industry pawns, allowing hundreds of new wells while ignoring possible environmental impacts to groundwater and earthquake faults.

George Torgun, an Earthjustice attorney who filed the lawsuit, argues that the regulatory agency isn’t following the California Environmental Quality Act when approving new wells.

Actually, he claims the agency is lazy when it comes to oversight, essentially using a generic approval letter for each fracking permit application—like it’s copying and pasting the same document over and over.

“The language is pretty much the same from document to document,” said Torgun.

As a result, the lawsuit claims the state has allowed the oil companies to regulate themselves for decades.

“Right now, they don’t require anything,” Torgun said. “They don’t really know where or when fracking is happening and what chemicals are being used.”

So why the fuss over fracking? The practice has led to a boom in the country’s oil and gas production as companies have discovered billions of new energy reserves buried deep in shale deposits. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration thinks the Monterey Shale formation in Central California might hold at least 15 billion barrels of extractable crude oil.

According to the EIA, Americans consumed 6.87 billion barrels of oil in 2011, so the Monterey Shale formation holds enough to supply the entire country for almost two-and-a-half years. It’s 64 percent of the country’s total shale oil reserves, per the EIA. For comparison, Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels of total crude reserves.

“The technology is remarkable, and the economic implications are remarkable,” said Donald L. Turcotte, a professor and geophysicist at UC Davis. “On the other hand, there are certainly serious environmental effects and some of these have been documented.”

Environmentalists point to accidents in Wyoming and West Virginia where the Environmental Protection Agency discovered contaminated groundwater after well casings leaked. They’re concerned that California’s regulators aren’t taking those dangers seriously.

Meanwhile, Vermont has already banned fracking, and several other states are also considering a moratorium until further research is completed on its side effects.

“Our main concern is that we want proof that it can be done safely, and it’s properly regulated,” said Bill Allayaud, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations that banded with Earthjustice to file the lawsuit.

The state has until December 17 to respond to the lawsuit. Department of Conservation spokesman Don Drysdale refused to comment on the case, but the oil and gas industry is furious.

Tupper Hull, a representative from the Western States Petroleum Association, said environmentalists are clueless on the issue.

“They clearly are misinformed about what oil companies are required to report to the state of California,” Hull said. “Everything that takes place on a drilling site is recorded and reported.”

Last year, Hull said that California’s oil and gas companies fracked at least 600 wells in 2011. Most were oil wells near Bakersfield in Kern County.

But Venoco Inc., a Colorado-based outfit drilling for natural gas north of Sacramento, may have fracked for natural gas at least 15 times in Sutter and Colusa counties this year, according to a press release issued by the company last December.

Allayaud said it’s hard to tell which wells are actually being fracked in California. The state’s online database of oil and gas projects doesn’t provide that kind of information. Neither do energy companies. SN&R reached out to Occidental Petroleum Corporation, one of the state’s largest oil firms, and asked for details about its fracking operations. In response, the company’s spokeswoman, Susie Geiger, wrote an email stating that Occidental doesn’t “discuss the specifics of its operations.”

“The whole thing is extremely proprietary,” said Turcotte. “You really can’t find out what they’re pumping down because they don’t want anyone else to know it.”

But activists believe California regulators shouldn’t let companies get away with keeping secrets. They’re also outraged about the federal government’s plans to auction off 18,000 acres of oil and gas rights in the Monterey Shale later this month without tougher state rules.

Credo Action, a national activist group, planned a rally outside the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Sacramento office on December 12 to protest the auction. In a statement posted on Credo’s website, the group urged the feds to wait “before selling off rights to oil companies to move ahead with totally unregulated fracking in California.”

Ironically, the federal government has sometimes sided with environmentalists in the war on fracking.

Last year, the EPA scolded California’s regulatory agency over its lack of oversight, and now the state is finally considering new rules for fracking. The regulatory agency hopes to present a set of draft regulations early next year, according to Drysdale, the state’s spokesman.

Environmentalists are hoping for tougher oversight in the new rules, including more information about drilling accidents and what chemicals are pumped underground. Still, Torgun thinks the agency should act immediately, even before issuing the guidelines.

“The concern is it’s going to take a while before we have any final regulations in place,” the attorney said. “In the meantime, we have [that] existing environmental review process under CEQA that’s applied for many decades now. That’s the law, and we want them to follow the law now.”