Leader of the frack

Fracking goes Hollywood, California proposes new regulations—and environmentalists still roil the oil and gas industry

California recently proposed a slate of new fracking regulations, but they still don’t have teeth, environmentalists say.

California recently proposed a slate of new fracking regulations, but they still don’t have teeth, environmentalists say.

There’s a telling scene near the beginning of Promised Land, director Gus Van Sant’s new anti-fracking film that opened in Sacramento theaters earlier this month. Matt Damon’s character—an energy flack who buys natural-gas rights from Pennsylvania ranchers—splurges for new flannel shirts, because he thinks the folksy threads will make him seem more trustworthy to local yokels. Underneath that plaid, however, the character is planning something else.

Jim Leap knows a thing or two about that.

Leap lives in rural Monterey County, a place where people tend chickens and a few crops in their backyard. One day last year, gigantic construction trucks bristling with seismic sensors and huge knobby tires rumbled into his neighborhood. At about the same time, a friendly man appeared and knocked on Leap’s door.

Dressed in warm, outdoorsy clothes like he worked at REI, the stranger was outgoing and chatty, making small talk about local wildlife and the region’s stunning scenery. He told Leap that the bulky seismic equipment was merely checking for earthquake faults.

“I fell for it hook, line and sinker,” Leap told SN&R during a phone interview last week. “I thought, ’Wow, that’s really cool. I could get behind that.’”

Only later did Leap realize this chummy out-of-towner was really a “land man,” an advance scout for oil companies hoping to frack roughly 15 billion barrels of oil from vast shale deposits beneath the coastal range in Central California.

And the trucks? Turns out they were mapping oil reserves deep below the velvety green hillsides surrounding Leap’s abode while the land man asked neighbors to sign over oil rights.

“I felt so betrayed afterward when I realized he told a big fat lie,” said Leap.

Fracking opponents say Leap’s experience—and the energy industry’s portrayal in Promised Land—is proof that California should demand more transparency from energy firms. Those companies already frack hundreds of oil wells in this state, but environmentalists say the public knows little about those operations.

That’s why fracking opponents were disappointed last month when the state’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, the California agency responsible for monitoring energy companies, released a first draft of new rules for well operators. Environmentalists say the regulations give energy firms a green light to frack in California with little oversight. They believe the practice, which involves injecting water and chemicals deep underground to loosen oil or gas deposits, is risky and should have tougher rules.

“We want fracking regs, but these regs aren’t ready for prime time,” said Bill Allayaud, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group. “We’re going to have to see major improvements on them between now and whenever they release the full draft regulations as a discussion draft.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s energy producers disagree. What’s not to love, they ask?

“The disclosure requirements appear to be consistent with the most stringent disclosure requirements in the country,” said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association.

To be fair, Promised Land (which Damon wrote with co-star John Krasinski, who plays an environmentalist in the movie) doesn’t really tackle the most controversial practices of the energy industry. In fact, you could say the film dissects fracking about as thoroughly as Good Will Hunting—another Damon flick—probes the mysteries of advanced math.

At its best, the film is a compelling character study of small-town America. But for some critics, it offers up nothing new about fracking except a few rehashed conspiracy theories—most vividly, the argument that cows can be killed by natural-gas fumes or tainted groundwater.

The oil and gas industry rebuffed any suggestion that the film got it right. “It’s sort of like saying, ’Was the portrayal of The Postman Always Rings Twice an accurate depiction of the postal service?’” Hull scoffed. Ouch.

Not so fast, however. A few studies have found disturbing evidence that Promised Land may not be all fiction. Last year, researchers from Cornell University discovered that fracking chemicals probably seeped into underground aquifers in six states, making livestock sick and even killing them.

Could California’s famously happy cows be in danger? It’s doubtful: The Cornell case studies happened in places such as Texas, Louisiana, Colorado and New York, where fracking is more widespread and mostly used for natural-gas drilling. Pennsylvania, for example, has nearly 9,000 rigs plunging steel fingers deep into the Marcellus Shale, one of the country’s largest gas deposits.

By comparison, California’s disclosed fracking activity takes place on roughly 600 oil wells spread around Bakersfield and other parts of Kern County. And the Golden State doesn’t have any horror stories about dead cows or flammable tap water, another supposed side effect portrayed in both Promised Land and the 2010 documentary Gasland.

Hull, the oil-and-gas spokesman, argued that Californians shouldn’t expect to hear those stories, because that’s what they are: stories cooked up by the entertainment industry. Damon’s film “is a very typical Hollywood portrayal of very stark bad guys and good guys,” said Hull, who read the script but hasn’t seen the movie yet. “There’s no particular nuance or intelligent discussion about the issue.”

The state’s new fracking rules are supposed to prevent accidents from happening. According to California’s oil and gas regulators, the proposed regulations would require well operators to follow strict guidelines for building their rigs. Inspectors would check those wells at least once a year to make sure oil and gas companies follow the rules.

At the same time, operators would be forced to notify regulators at least 10 days before they start fracking. Under these rules, companies would also disclose what type of chemicals are used during the process, although firms wouldn’t have to be specific if they wanted to protect trade secrets.

The state’s lawmakers seem happy with the new rules. This month, they rubber-stamped Gov. Jerry Brown’s pick to head the Department of Conservation, which oversees California’s oil and gas regulators.

Meanwhile, California’s oil and gas officials will begin accepting public comments on the proposed fracking rules starting next month. They intend to finalize the regulations by year’s end, although division regulators could tweak some of the proposed guidelines before then.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, are not impressed. They’re taking California’s fracking wars to another level.

Anti-fracking outfits, including Allayaud’s Environmental Working Group, had already sued oil and gas officials over fracking last October, before the rules came out. Activists essentially argued that oil and gas regulators are low-level pawns of the energy industry. That case is still going forward, and a court hearing is set for February 28.

Allayaud argued that state regulators should ask more questions each time a company decides to frack wells in California—and release more of that information to the public. From his perspective, the proposed fracking rules are toothless and allow the energy industry to police itself.

“I think that’s the culture of [state regulators] that’s existed for decades and decades, and the new regulations don’t really change that much,” he said.