The Science of Sustainability

Fracking in California: Any Cause For Concern?

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The Lost Hills oil field owes much of its production today to hydraulic fracturing. Photos by Andrew Alden

"Fracking," the ugly nickname for a common oilfield practice, is a rising concern in many places. What about California? Appropriately for a high-tech state, all kinds of advances in underground techniques have been used here. How safe are they? Hard to say.

Working with underground spaces means entering a dynamic environment. California oilfield operators learned that very early in ways that would horrify us today. A century ago, drillers would sometimes tap a highly overpressured oil pool and cause a gusher. The worst of these was the Lakeview gusher, a blowout that began in the spring of 1910 between Taft and Maricopa and lasted more than a year. (The scene today is marked by a plaque.) It ruined the California oil industry for a while—not because of environmental degradation or public revulsion or a government crackdown, but because the flood of oil made the price of crude collapse. Let me put it this way: the problems we have today from oilwell technologies aren't like they used to be.

Site of the Lakeview gusher north of Maricopa. A hundred years later, the ground is still paved with asphalt.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a way to open up deep rocks by pumping liquids down a borehole at high pressure. The idea is to make a lot of little cracks in tight rocks so the trapped oil can flow out. In the old days, well operators in the Los Angeles basin would goose a fading well by pumping down the crude oil already in the borehole. Today fracking involves water mixed with a little sand, which washes into the new cracks and jams them open. It's widely performed in California to keep old oilfields producing.

You have to pump the fracking water back out before you can extract the oil. Most of the time you can pump it down somewhere else to backfill the space that used to hold the oil, a technique called water injection. The industry learned that about 50 years ago when sinking ground caused shallow earthquakes. The huge Wilmington oil field under Long Beach had six damaging earthquakes between 1947 and 1961 before water injection made them stop.

Today oilfield earthquakes are not a problem in California. Disposal of excess fracking water is our dirty secret. Fracking water gets tainted from its exposure to the oil and natural brines down there, plus it's also mixed with various ingredients to help with the downhole chemistry. Water injection takes care of a lot of dirty fracking water, but the rest needs to be dealt with somehow. In the old days it was dumped on the ground or poured into ponds to evaporate, without much care. Today . . . well, nobody has been keeping track of the industry.

The state government's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) claims to be regulating fracking, but when the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water inquired early last year, the agency had no data to supply. This was a year after DOGGR had gotten extra money, money it had asked for, to develop fracking regulations. The agency now says on its website that it "only has limited information about the use of the practice."

The Environmental Working Group recently compiled what it could find on California fracking and DOGGR's role in overseeing it and issued a critical report called "California Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking." The title makes its message clear, and even though I am allergic to activist overstatement of all kinds, I found its factual contents worth heeding. Now the state legislature is considering several bills to encourage more disclosure of fracking; one of them, SB 1054, would require neighboring property owners to be notified of fracking 30 days in advance. The issue is alive, and the legislative sumo match is underway. But the people's watchdog is sitting it out, leaving the fray to lawmakers and lobbyists.

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Category: Blog, Energy, Environment, Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.facebook.com/freelivingsoul Paul Goulart

    Wow! That's incredible. I've just recently learned about fracking……I know, where've I been? This is really not a great idea, right?

    • http://oaklandgeology.wordpress.com Andrew Alden

      Fracking works fine when it's done right, but that takes care and expense. If no one is riding herd on them, oil drillers can easily cut corners to avoid the hassle of doing it right. In California (and other places), no one seems to be riding herd. That's what's not a great idea.

  • Judilee19

    Fracking is BAD. I recommend that everyone to watch the documentary called Gasland. It's about how fracking affects the environment, humans and other living creatures that come into contact with it.

  • Judilee19

    You will see people light their tap water straight from the sink on fire. Yes. People living near the hydraulic fracking or gas wells have contaminated water cause by fracking. But of course the government or the EPA does not care.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1522786448 Scott Cannon

      In our governments eyes, the benefits outweigh the risks, but if you don't properly test, how do you know what the risks are? I live in Pennsylvania, and every day something goes wrong, whether it be a well blowout, and compressor station blowout, a pipeline explosion, a frack truck spill or accident, it's always something the industry promises doesn't happen.

  • Andrew Alden

    Let me repeat the comment I made yesterday because it isn't showing up for some reason:

    Fracking works fine when it's done right, but that takes care and expense. If no one is riding herd on them, oil drillers can easily cut corners to avoid the hassle of doing it right. In California (and other places), no one seems to be riding herd. That's what's not a great idea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Holly-DSouza/100000617733550 Holly D'Souza

    Pumping poisonous chemicals into the earth to obtain energy (in this case -gas) for a growing population is NOT a solution to the energy crisis- rather it is a greater solution for those who want more profit. The environmental aspect has been and still is – a secondary consideration in fracking (as is human safety). Saying : "When done right"…already means it is an imperfect process. Wake up…most man-made processes are laden with errors. Work on the premise that fracking will have mistakes and then what? It is a bloody costly outcome! So don't approve the process! Think about current super fund sites in Silicon Valley. Nineteen of these sites were contaminated by high tech firms in the manufacturing of computer chips which used highly toxic chemicals including, trichloro-ethylene, Freon, trichloroethane and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Now we have groundwater contaminated from that. Does any one stop to even think about this?. ANY leakage of poisonous chemicals is unacceptable to both humans and the environment. Our community has been simply inconsiderate with our natural resources and safety of people. We need to change and stand up for ourselves and the community. Conserve energy- live simple – stop fracking!

  • soul secret service

    Here are some video Interviews shot before the California State fracking workshop in Culver City, CA— June 12 http://youtu.be/0M7F4o6_zZ0  
    This is one of the few informational gathering "workshops" to be held in California. You can submit your comments about franking to: comments@conservation.ca.gov