July 19th, 2013


Energy Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

Reporter, ProPublica

Supporters of hydraulic fracturing see it as a driver of affordable domestic energy that can create jobs. Opponents see a risk to water supplies, ecosystems and human health. This conversation with reporters covering fracking in California and in the US highlights the dangers and potential of the natural gas bonanza. Will California pass a moratorium? Will the Monterey Shale really be developed? Is gas really better than coal?
Likened to the gold rush in the middle of the 19th century, the idea of injecting water or steam into shale rock to extract petroleum or natural gas is becoming known as the “shale boom” in California, and its prospects are changing the state’s energy landscape. Fracking is “the most profound [energy] revolution that we’ve had in decades,” said reporter David Baker.
“It has unlocked natural gas supplies that in the past we just couldn't get to,” Baker said.
There’s an enormous amount of oil and gas trapped in these shale rocks, Lustgarten said. Natural gas is cheaper and burns cleaner than coal, but the drilling process itself presents risks, such as the release of methane, propane, and hexane, which contribute to warming temperatures worldwide.
Baker agreed that leakage is potentially a huge problem because methane is a much more potent gas than carbon dioxide, which invalidates the energy benefits. Monitoring efforts are also “woefully inadequate,” according to Lustgarten.
“Most states don’t have laws in place that would even require a driller to notify the state or seek a permit to hydraulically fracture a formation before they do it,” Lustgarten said.
Fracking involves pumping water mixed with a small amount of sand and chemicals at a high pressure to crack the rocks at the bottom, allowing oil or gas to escape and be collected. One of the key issues is that companies do not disclose what chemicals are pumped, claiming that they are “competitive trade secrets,” Lustgarten said.
In Wyoming, where disclosure is now required, “the companies really push the limits on what they can get away with, so there’s still a great deal of information that is not disclosed,” Lustgarten said.
Regarding health and environmental concerns, some companies claim the chemicals are too deep down to come up into the water tables, but many researchers are not convinced, Lustgarten said. He has reviewed documentation and interviewed residents near fracking sites who complain about serious environmental problems, including those in Pavillion, Wyoming, an area intensely drilled for natural gas.
“One guy tells me that as a well across his field was fracked, his washing machine turned black and cloudy,” Lustgarten said. “Others complain of bad taste. I went there, we filled the stock well with water out of another gentleman's tap and took a torch to it and the top lit on fire and melted.”
In Parker County, Texas there was also widespread methane contamination with flammable tap water, but research was mysteriously halted, Lustgarten said.
“EPA hired a whole bunch of experts who found, in their opinions, very conclusive evidence that the two were connected, that the gas drilling and the contamination were related,” he said. “And once again, similar to Wyoming, [EPA] abruptly dropped their case.”
Current California regulations do not require landowners to be notified of nearby fracking projects, and proposed regulations would only require posting a notice that would go on a state website a couple of days before the frac job would start, Baker said.
A lot of the environmental voice behind the fracking issue is in New York State, according to Lustgarten. In California, where residents are becoming more dependent on foreign oil, Governor Brown is still up in the air about the issue, Baker said.
“He [Brown] has talked a couple of times about what he calls the ‘extraordinary energy resources’ that we've got here in the state,” Baker said. “He's talking about a specific shale formation called the Monterey Shale, which lies beneath most of the southern end of the Central Valley…the biggest oil-bearing shale formation in the United States at 15.4 billion barrels.”
There is also an issue with using water for finding oil – some ranchers and farmers argue available water should be used for agriculture. For years, Texas has been experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, Lustgarten said.
“Texas has tens of thousands of these horizontal wells, which use up to 10 million gallons of water a piece and can be fracked four to eight times, so there's a real contradiction,” he said. “And the water that they're using for the fracking, unlike a lot of other industrial processes, is for the most part removed from the water cycle.”
In discussing how improved technologies may make fracking safer, Baker said some of the environmental problems stem from the “gold rush mentality.”
“You had a lot of small companies moving in to operate very quickly without a lot of oversight,” Baker said. “And pretty much whenever you have that, you're going to have people getting sloppy.”
- Danielle Torrent
Photos by: Josh Rodriguez
Commonwealth Club of California
July 19, 2013
David Baker, Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle, @DavidBakerSF
Abrahm Lustgarten, Reporter, ProPublica, @AbrahmL