Oh, frack!

Why isn’t the state regulating fracking? California wants to know.

Bill Allayaud with the Environmental Working Group says state regulators have turned a blind eye to fracking.

Bill Allayaud with the Environmental Working Group says state regulators have turned a blind eye to fracking.

Depending on whom you ask, fracking is either the new environmental bogeyman or a blessing for America’s energy supply. It is blamed for contaminated groundwater in Wyoming and for earthquakes in Ohio. When fracking is mentioned, people think about YouTube clips of people setting tap water on fire as it pours from their kitchen faucets.

Or they think about Battlestar Galactica, though the sci-fi F-bomb “frak” is spelled without the “C.”

Fracking is also a big part of the reason that natural gas in North America is cheap and plentiful. Compared to coal or gasoline, natural gas is also easier on the air and much lighter in polluting carbon.

But worries about fracking have prompted intense scrutiny of the controversial practice, which involves pumping a mixture of water and sand and chemicals—sometimes very nasty chemicals—at very high pressure into oil or gas wells. This helps break up rock and more easily bring the precious fossil fuels to the surface. The process is called hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short.

Nine states have recently passed laws requiring companies to disclose when and where they frack, along with information about the chemicals being used in the process. The state of New York went so far as to impose a moratorium on fracking, pending a full environmental review that’s just wrapping up now. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun its own three-year study of fracking.

The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown says there’s very little fracking happening in California.

But it is happening, and routinely. SN&R found one company that has been fracking wells in the Sacramento area for years. And rumors of fracking have some Sacramento River Delta residents nervous, too, though it’s tough for local communities to get information about fracking in California because the state doesn’t keep track of it.

Indeed, environmental groups complain that the state has largely turned a blind eye to fracking—despite the problems that have cropped up in other parts of the country.

“It’s this commonplace method, but we know nothing about it,” says Bill Allayaud, lobbyist with the Environmental Working Group. Allayaud is one of the main advocates for a state law that would require more disclosure of fracking—following the example of states like Colorado, Wyoming and Texas. “I think we ought to know where it’s being used and what the chemicals are.”

Where the frack?

The fracking horror stories are widely known by now. In Pavillion, Wyoming, the EPA has linked fracking drinking water tainted with benzene and methane and, according to the EPA, other chemicals “consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.” In Northeastern Ohio, state regulators say that the pumping of fracking wastewater into underground injection wells set off a series of small earthquakes.

More than any other story, it was probably the documentary Gasland that gave fracking its bad reputation. That film featured now famous footage of families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, lighting their tap water on fire. A fight is still going on there between residents, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation and the EPA over whether the elevated levels of methane in Dimock’s well water is or isn’t caused by natural-gas drilling and fracking. In Washington, D.C., Gasland’s creator, Josh Fox, was arrested last month by Capitol police for attempting to film a public hearing regarding fracking by the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

Late last year, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club sued the Bureau of Land Management to prevent fracking plans on public land in Fresno and Monterey counties.

But other than this, California has largely avoided the fracking drama. The head of the California Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, Tim Kustic, says hydraulic fracturing has been occurring for 60 years in the state without any problems. California’s geology is different than back East where fracking is more prevalent. “Much of our natural gas is produced from sand, which does not require fracking stimulation,” he wrote in a letter to the Chico Enterprise Record earlier this year. Where the practice has occurred, “fracking has been used to stimulate production without a single report of environmental damage.”

Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York all sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation. It’s only been in the last few years that fracking technology has allowed producers to get at the gas trapped in the otherwise impermeable rock there. “You couldn’t get to the gas without fracking there,” says UC Davis geology professor William Glassley. With fracking, a vast new territory for gas exploration has opened up. And that’s keeping gas cheap.

One of the biggest environmental concerns has been with what goes into “the frack,” as the mixture of water and chemicals is sometimes called.

Some of the stuff in fracking fluid sounds pretty benign—like sand and salt. Sand acts as a “proppant” to help force or prop open tiny openings in the rock.

But the frack also contains things like surfactants, corrosion inhibitors and bactericide. And it can include some nasty stuff like benzene—a known carcinogen and neurotoxin—or lead, or highly toxic chemicals methanol or ethylene glycol, or even radioactive isotopes used to trace the frack underground.

Defenders of the practice say that it’s not the fracking that causes flammable tap water and other problems. Most of the actual fracking goes on far below the water table. And as long as a well is properly encased in concrete, there shouldn’t be any leakage of gas or chemicals into the groundwater. More often than not, it’s something like defective well casings that break and allow chemicals to leak out. The industry says that’s pretty rare, and it can happen whether a well is fracked or not.

A bill by California Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski would require oil and gas companies to disclose when and where they frack, and what chemicals they use. Nine other states already have similar laws.

Likewise, the California Clean Water Act governs the construction of gas and oil wells in California, and the safe disposal of the fracking fluid.

But critics say we don’t actually know much about the safety record for fracking in California, because so little is being recorded.

In a report released last month titled “California Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking,” the Environmental Working Group says its review of industry records suggests that thousands of wells had been fracked. But, according to the report, “since the agency does not know where hydraulic fracturing is taking place, it could not look for evidence of contamination even if it wanted to.”

“It’s true we don’t have the horror stories that have happened in other places,” EWG’s Allayaud, one of the authors of the study, told SN&R. “But we also don’t know for sure what’s going on.”

If you visit the website FracFocus (www.fracfocus.org), which is run by a consortium of state water agencies, you’ll see fracking reported in the oil fields of Kern County and a couple other spots in Southern California.

According to the Western States Petroleum Association, fracking on California oil wells is only used for a limited duration, to stimulate production or get an old well flowing again.

But what shows up on FracFocus is only what is voluntarily reported by companies. In California and most other states there are no rules requiring disclosure of the practice.

So even in places where gas drilling has been going on for years, people may fret about fracking. For example, there have been rumors of fracking in gas fields near Rio Vista in the Sacramento Delta. One company in particular, Vintage Production LLC, had residents wondering earlier this year.

But it’s been tough for locals to get answers, partly because Vintage is actually a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. So SN&R contacted Occidental to ask about whether the company was fracking in the Sacramento Basin.

“Due to proprietary reasons, we do not normally discuss the specifics of our operations,” explained company spokesperson Susie Geiger, in an email. “However I can tell you that we are not currently using nor have plans of using hydraulic fracturing at this time in the Sacramento/Rio Vista area.”

But most of the wells in the Delta are owned by othe companies. SN&R asked the state Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources how much fracking was going on in California and where it was and how local communities could find out if it was happening near them.

DOGGR makes records about every gas well in the state available to the public. But Donald Drysdale, spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation, which includes DOGGR, explained that, “Because we don’t permit hydraulic fracturing, you may or may not find anything related to the practice in the well history of a file.”

SN&R looked at dozens of well records for the 900 wells in Sacramento County and found no mention of fracking.

The regulatory gray area can be confusing even for government officials. In Santa Barbara County last year, the Denver-based oil and gas company Venoco Inc. got in trouble with county officials who said Venoco didn’t have the proper permits for fracking two oil wells near Los Alamos.

When it turned out the company didn’t need special permits for fracking, since the practice is unregulated in California, the county was forced to back off.

There’s been considerably less scrutiny of Venoco’s hydraulic fracturing in the Sacramento Basin. It’s not a secret. In fact, Venoco vice president Mike Edwards spoke at length about Venoco’s operation in the Sacramento area.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that goes on,” said Edwards.


Just step back for a moment here to middle-school science class: Remember that all fossil fuels come from deposits of organic material, especially layers of decomposing vegetation, algae and marine muck, that get buried and subjected to heat and pressure and over time turns into methane—the lightest, simplest fossil fuel—along with the heavier hydrocarbons that make up oil. Methane is the main component of the natural gas we use in our stoves and heaters and city buses.

In some places, the gas has a lot of liquid petroleum in it, which can make it burn too hot. Or it has too much of some inert gases, like nitrogen, which can make it burn too cool. Those impurities have to be taken out, and that costs more money. Venoco likes the Sacramento Basin, Edwards said, because the gas here is pretty clean.

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped at very high pressure into the surrounding rock to create fractures and free up oil and gas that would otherwise remain trapped.

Most of Venoco’s wells are in the Grimes gas fields in Sutter County and Willows field in Glenn County. The company has also been active in the Dutch Slough in near the Delta town of Oakley.

All are within what’s called the Sacramento Basin by geologists—stretching from the Klamath Mountains to the north, down to the San Joaquin-Stanislaus County line.

Reports to the company’s investors over the last five years indicate that the company has had a fracking program in the basin since 2007. Venoco fracked 70 wells by the end of 2008. In 2009, it was two wells, 12 in 2010, and 21 wells fracked in 2011.

That’s nothing compared to the scale of the fracking back East. But it confirms what some suspected and state regulators can’t tell us: Fracking is happening here on a routine basis.

In Sacramento the geology is a much more permeable mix of shale and sandstone, compared to the Marcellus Shale. The way Edwards described it, the round grains of sand in the Sacramento Basin act more like a room full of basketballs. The “pore space” in between the balls is where the balls get trapped. When they get jostled around, the gas comes loose pretty easily.

By comparison, shale acts more like dinner plates stacked on top of each other, trapping gas underneath.

Fracking is a good way to get more gas out of an old well and also to free up gas in parts of the underlying rock formation that has more shale. Edwards said the actual fracking is usually carried out by a contracting oil-services company. Venoco works with some well-known outfits like Halliburton and Schlumberger.

The company has been producing about 60 million cubic feet of natural gas in the Basin every day. (By comparison, the state consumes about 12 billion cubic feet of it every day.) But Edwards says the company is easing back on gas drilling in the Sacramento Basin, because a glut of natural gas being produced back East has driven prices too low to justify much investment in California’s comparatively smaller and more spread-out gas fields. Last year, the company invested $60 million and started 40 new wells. This year, Edwards expects it’ll dig five.

Fracking in the light of day

But when prices do go up, that will likely mean more gas production and more fracking in California, said Bob Wieckowski, a California assemblyman from Hayward, who has introduced a law he hopes will shed more light on fracking in the state.

“We need to look beyond the next five minutes to the next 10 or 15 years. That’s why we need to set up a disclosure bill now,” Wieckowski told SN&R.

Wiecowksi’s Assembly Bill 591 (co-sponsored by Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson) would require companies to disclose when and where they are fracking, what’s in the fracking fluid, and what is done with the used frack water.

The bill bogged down last year when Halliburton and other companies objected to disclosing proprietary information about their fracking fluid.

But amendments are in the works to model the law on rules recently passed in Colorado, which allows for protection of certain “trade secrets.”

Asked if companies could then hide certain harmful chemicals by declaring them to be part of a trade secret, Wieckowski said, “Right now, I’m not expecting it to be abused. If we find out it’s overused or abused, we’re going to change it.”

The bill would also likely require that fracking information be posted on an easy-to-use website, like FracFocus.

Both Wiekcowski and Allayaud think there will soon be a deal. Edwards also told SN&R that oil and gas companies favor a disclosure bill. “I think the industry is willing to work with the Legislature and figure out what is best for California,” he said.

Geologist Glassley said he would recommend going a step further, and having the state not only collect the information about fracking, but also do some analysis of that information and monitor for problems.

“It would be a great investment for the state, and it would save money in the long run,” Glassley told SN&R.

Wiecowski doesn’t disagree, but said given the state’s fiscal predicament, the bill can’t cost much money. “Because it is 2012, the fiscal impact of the bill had to be minimal. I didn’t want that to be the reason the bill got killed.”

He considers his bill the granddad of fracking legislation, a way to find out if further regulation is warranted. “Let’s know what the facts are first.”

Of course, some critics would just as soon ban fracking in California altogether. In the absence of flammable tap water or some similar catastrophe, that’s not likely to happen.

For now, the best they may be able to hope is just to know where the frack it is.