After a series of earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio last week, some observers are pointing to an unusual culprit. Yesterday seismologist John Armbruster told NPR that he thinks the quakes were related to an oil and gas extraction process called fracking.
JOHN ARMBRUSTER: Yongstown is an area which doesn’t have a history of earthquakes. This disposal well began operating in December of 2010. Three months later, the earthquakes begin.
Industry and government experts estimate there are hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in various shale formations across the country. Some people think there’s enough to meet the country’s natural gas needs for the next few centuries – assuming we can actually get to it. Which is where fracking comes in.
Here's how it works: companies drill deep into the ground, a mile or two down, into shale – a hard but porous rock with little pockets of gas or oil speckled throughout. Then they inject highly pressurized frack fluid – a combination of water, sand and chemicals – to break up the rock and release the oil and gas.
Fracking has touched off something of an energy boom in this country. But it’s controversial. Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency found chemicals commonly used in frack fluid in a Wyoming town’s water supply.
Environmentalist Bill Allayaud says the biggest problem with fracking is that we just don't know that much about its long-term effects – but it's happening right now in California. KALW’s Christopher Connelly reports.
CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY: Riding around in Chris Wrather’s golf cart, you can see about a dozen horses grazing on his ranch near Los Alamos, in northern Santa Barbara County. It’s a quiet patch of the valley, surrounded by vineyards and farmland.
CHRIS WRATHER: We have a training track up the hill.
Forty horses eat a lot of grass. And that means they need a lot of water.
WRATHER: We're fortunate in this valley to have this wonderful supply of water and wonderful quality of water.
A few months ago, Wrather’s neighbor called him up. He had some oil wells on his land and companies had drilled there before. But lately there had been a lot of new activity. It seemed different.
WRATHER: And I, oh said, “Don't tell me.” Even before he said, “Y'know,” I said, “Don't tell me they're fracking.”
They were fracking, but for oil, not natural gas. Wrather had heard about the practice. He wanted to make sure that his water would stay clean.
WRATHER: Once it's damaged, it's damaged. It's game over. Without water, we don't have a business. We don't have a livable place to live. That would be true of everywhere that shares that water supply.
DOREEN FARR: I think it was kind of a double shock in a way.
Doreen Farr represents Los Alamos in the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
FARR: One was that this would happen without anybody really knowing about it – without there being some sort of notification to the county in the form of an application or whatever.
In other words, oil companies didn’t have to tell anyone they were fracking.
FARR: I think even the bigger surprise was that it was happening any place at all in Santa Barbara County – that we had the geology that would make fracking attractive to an oil company.
Farr says she and others in the county thought fracking was a natural gas thing. There's not much gas in Santa Barbara. As it turns out, though, they are right on top of a huge shale formation that spans four counties in central California. It's filled with oil – 15 billion barrels. That’s enough to meet the whole country’s needs for at least 2 years.
COUNTY SUPERVISOR: Item number 2 is a briefing on hydraulic fracturing...
Doreen Farr arranged for a number of hearings at the county board of supervisors. She invited residents, state officials, and oil company representatives. She wanted to find out how common fracking was in Santa Barbara, and what the risks were.
COUNTY SUPERVISOR: And I think the primary concern is had to be with any effect that it might have had on ground water, in particular in Los Alamos, all the people...
They learned that only two wells were fracked in Santa Barbara County. They also learned that state regulators don’t keep any records on where fracking happens. What’s more, the industry doesn’t have to disclose what chemicals are used in the frack fluid. They’re considered trade secrets.
FARR: Well, if we want to test for this, we don't even know what to test for. You can’t test for everything.
BRIAN SEGEE: There's not a clear path under California state law or federal law to figure out where fracking is happening.
Brian Segee is a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. He says that when oil companies frack in California, they file the same paperwork they would for traditional oil and gas wells. Since they usually frack in wells they’ve already drilled, the state doesn’t require an extra permit.
SEGEE: And it's hard to even piece things together afterward. But clearly there has been no prior disclosure, and that's what we saw in northern Santa Barbara County.
A few months before all this happened, California fracking had caught the attention of a national nonprofit called the Environmental Working Group. Bill Allayaud is their California representative.
BILL ALLAYAUD: When I asked them about it, there was a pretty clear-cut answer. And it was, “We don't frack in California for gas because we don't need to.”
The “them” he’s referring to are the state regulators. They work under the Department of Conservation, and their official name is the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, but everybody calls them DOGGR. Allayaud says what they told him is technically true: gas fracking is rare in California. But that’s only half the story.
ALLAYAUD: We've been fracking for oil in this state for 50 years – not gas, but oil. We first fracked a well in California in 1953 in Los Angeles. The world's record frack occurred in California in Kern County in 1994.
Allayaud says not only is fracking still happening, it’s happening all the time.
ALLAYAUD: Oil companies openly said, “Oh, we've been fracking for 50 years.” They're not hiding anything. They do that as a matter of routine on at least 50 percent of the oil wells in California.
He wanted to know why DOGGR hadn’t mentioned the oil fracking.
ALLAYAUD: I could not believe how head-in-the-sand they were. Or they were outright lying. I couldn't figure this out why are they not telling me what's going on?
DOGGR declined to be interviewed for this report. In an email, they said they had “no verified information” about fracking in the state, but that they don’t believe it’s widely used. The Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobby, says Californians shouldn’t be worried about fracking. Tupper Hull is a spokesperson for the group.
TUPPER HULL: There are huge amounts of regulation – and frankly a great deal of understanding built up over the years by the oil industry about how to protect that groundwater.
Hull says it's impossible for fracking to affect the water supply because it takes place so far below it. And all oil drilling – fracking or not – goes through the water table.
HULL: That's why well integrity, about which there's a huge amount of regulation, is the key to protecting groundwater in a hydraulic fracturing circumstance or any other drilling circumstance.
Hull also defends the industry’s refusal to be specific about how they make their frack fluids. He says people don’t understand the importance of trade secrets.
HULL: Companies that develop processes and utilize very precise recipes for hydraulic fracturing have a very legitimate concern in protecting those precise recipes. You and I, as consumers of energy products, benefit from that competition. Therefore those protections are in our interests. That's not the oil industry's point of view. That's the state of California and the federal government's point of view. We happen to agree with it.
There’s still a lot of debate about fracking’s environmental effects and the EPA is still studying it. In the absence of national legislation, states have started to regulate fracking on their own. A bill pending in the California legislature would require companies to disclose what chemicals they are using and how much fracking they are doing, but they wouldn’t have to say where they’re fracking for a few years after the fact. The bill has a lot of support: Tupper Hull says the Western States Petroleum Association is behind it, as long as there are safeguards for trade secrets.
Back at his ranch in Los Alamos, Chris Wrather says that wouldn’t be enough for him.
WRATHER: It doesn't make me feel better to know what's gonna poison me. I want the poisoning to be stopped before it happens.
In Santa Barbara, at least, he’s got his wish. Late last year, county supervisors voted to change the zoning code. Now, if oil companies want to frack, they have to apply for a separate permit, hold a public hearing, and produce a full environmental impact report. Wrather says he's happy with the new regulations, but he's still suspicious of the whole fracking business.
WRATHER: We're not anti-oil. We're not anti-oil company. We just want to know that it's safe before it happens here because the consequences are too high.
For Wrather, those consequences mean his whole way of life.
WRATHER: When I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat about something, it's usually about water. Anything that has to do with water, to me, is absolutely the most important thing in our lives.
California's Senate plans to take up the fracking disclosure bill early this year. Santa Barbara is still the only California county with any fracking regulations.
For Crosscurrents, I'm Christopher Connelly.
Read DOGGR’s response to the California Senate’s Department of Conservation about the practice of hydraulic fracturing in California here.