When the recent debate over hydraulic fracturing in California first got started, Gov. Jerry Brown made a statement that’s worth recalling: “California is the fourth-largest oil producing state and we want to continue that.” Fortunately, we have the resources and the technology to ensure we remain a leading energy producer.
The Monterey Shale, a geological formation roughly 2 miles beneath parts of California, contains as many as 15 billion barrels of oil. That’s enough home-grown energy to eliminate California’s need for overseas oil for 50 years, create thousands of jobs, boost the economy, and send billions of dollars of new tax revenue to state and local governments. To produce this oil, which was previously inaccessible, California’s oil and gas companies may combine advanced drilling methods with hydraulic fracturing, a technology that’s been safely used more than a million times across the United States since the 1940s without incident.
Despite its impressive track record, activist groups with extreme anti-industry views — such as Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch — want hydraulic fracturing banned as a de facto means of putting the oil and gas industry out of business, and millions of oil and gas workers out of their jobs. These groups claim that fracturing technology is unsafe, but that is simply untrue.
Just ask the Obama administration and its expert advisers.
“There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Congress earlier this year. “It can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times,” says Salazar, who oversees oil and gas activity on roughly 700 million acres of federal lands, including 47 million acres in California. According to Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback, an adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “the mystery surrounding hydraulic fracturing has actually been exacerbated and people have been paranoid, really for no reason.”
This paranoia includes the mistaken belief that fracturing shale contaminates groundwater and causes damaging earthquakes. “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply,” Zoback says. As for earthquakes, Zoback says the seismic energy released by the process is “about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter,” and the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded fracturing “does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”
Because it is safe, activist groups have to make fracturing sound scary by claiming the process is minimally regulated, or worse, unregulated. Not according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which says fracturing is regulated “under a complex set of federal, state and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation.” States are the “No. 1 regulator,” says White House energy adviser Heather Zichal, and according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, “states are stepping up and doing a good job.”
In California, there are strict regulations for oil and natural gas wells — requiring multiple layers of steel and cement casing to protect groundwater. Oil and gas companies are working constructively with regulators and lawmakers in Sacramento on measures that will strengthen the state’s oversight of hydraulic fracturing and give the public more information about how it’s done. In fact, California’s oil and gas companies have already started disclosure using FracFocus, the same registry endorsed by many other states with mandatory disclosure regulations.
Here’s what the industry opposes — a ban or a moratorium based on fear mongering from anti-industry ideologues, dishonest filmmakers and misguided celebrities, instead of facts. And the facts show hydraulic fracturing is not a threat to California, it is an opportunity.
Dave Quast is the California Director of Energy In Depth.