Fracking bill would provide insight into oil field practice

Fracking bill would provide insight into oil field practice

Source: The Bakersfield Californian, June 13, 2011
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Oil field legislation making its way through Sacramento could shine a light on the routine but controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” even as some in the industry doubt the proposed rules would have much impact on Kern County oil production.

Assembly Bill 591 would require oil companies to disclose certain information that is now private, such as where fracking is done, how much water is involved and what chemicals are injected underground as part of the process.

The bill reflects heightened federal scrutiny of an increasingly common practice that environmentalists fear has the potential to contaminate groundwater.

Fracking, pioneered in the 1940s, injects a mixture of water, sand and small concentrations of toxic chemicals into oil and gas wells at high pressure in order to break up rock formations, prop them open and tap petroleum deposits that are otherwise too difficult to reach. The practice is credited with unlocking vast natural gas reserves on the East Coast and Midwest.

Oil companies defend the technique as harmless and essential to the country’s energy supply. Industry representatives and some lawmakers have decried an ongoing federal study of the practice as biased and inspired by anecdotes as opposed to science.

Industry response

In California, industry reaction has been mild to AB 591, introduced earlier this year by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont. Although industry representatives hope to see amendments, such as a closer definition of what constitutes fracking, they say oil companies are happy to share information if it allays public concerns over the practice.

“Conceptually, we are not in opposition, and frankly support better disclosure, better reporting of this information,” said Tupper Hull, vice president of communications at the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group.

But Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, views the bill as unnecessary regulation on what has become a helpful practice.

“We need access to oil and natural gas to meet our critical energy needs,” she wrote in an email. “Making this process more difficult and costly for both producers and taxpayers won’t help us reach energy independence.”

Large oil producers operating in Kern County declined to comment on the bill or discuss their fracking practices.

People familiar with the practice locally say some of the concerns that have made fracking a hot topic nationally do not apply directly to Kern County, where fracking has taken place since at least the 1960s. Geologists and industry representatives note that local underground rock formations are much younger than those back east, and so layers of underground clay here are better able to contain any chemicals that might escape their intended zone.

Cal State Bakersfield geology professor Janice Gillespie said that, because of the younger rock formations here, fracking should not be considered as dangerous here as it may be on the East Coast.

Conditions nevertheless vary around the county, she and others noted. Generally, Kern fracking is done at depths of several thousand feet, well below the water table. But in areas such as the western part of the county where the oil is shallower, groundwater is very salty and so there is less worry about potential harm to drinking water.

“I really don’t see much problem here, especially in deeper parts of the valley,” said Gillespie, who has worked as an oil and gas engineer locally and is familiar with fracking operations here.

Ron Cleveland, district manager for Nabors Drilling USA LP, said fracking rarely if ever takes place in Kern County where oil is shallow, anyway.

Still, absent more public information, it’s hard to know how risky the practice is around the state, said Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs for the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which worked with Wieckowski on the bill.

“We are not saying that fracking has polluted groundwater or resulted in toxic spills,” he said. “We just want to get a handle on it — what it’s going on, how much, and where and when.”

Little information to go on

Part of the reason the bill came about is that state government has no consistent records on fracking in California. The Department of Conversation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources says it does not directly regulate the practice and so it has no knowledge of when or where fracking operations take place, let alone how much water is used or where that water comes from.

On a case by case basis, however, DOGGR does collect information on fracking, even if it does not track it statistically and cannot easily provide fracking data upon request.

Also, by approving oil field operators’ proposed well completion projects and certain injections of oil field waste materials, the department has a de-facto regulatory role, retired DOGGR engineer Mike Stettner said.

“If we didn’t agree with” an operator’s plans, he said, “we wouldn’t let them frack.”

Another agency — the Kern County Water Agency — provides some consulting on local fracking activity but it is not a regulatory agency and has not taken a position on AB 591.

Certain DOGGR regulations related to how wells are completed do not address fracking specifically but act to make sure fracking chemicals do not enter the water table. For instance, operators must line wells with steel casings and cement them in place, which acts to protect groundwater against possible leaks.

These protections appear to have succeeded, according to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Officials there said they had no knowledge of even one instance in which fracking has contaminated drinking water.

Still, they plan to remain vigilant by continuing to test for water contamination.

“I think it is something that we’re going to continue to look at, stay aware of,” said Doug Pattison, a supervising engineer with the board in Fresno.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Wieckowski, said the legislation is not ideal in that it does not require disclosure of when or how often oil companies frack. That was withdrawn in response to concerns expressed by industry.

But depending on what information the bill produces if it passes, such information could be required in later bills, he said.

“This is the first venture in to the fracking world,” he said of the legislation.

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