Tens of thousands of acres of federal land in California could soon be opened to companies that will use hydraulic fracturing — commonly referred to as fracking — to extract oil and natural gas. But the sale of the mineral rights to the land, and the process of fracking itself, should be halted throughout California until safeguards are put into place to put checks on a system that is currently nearly free of governmental oversight.
Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground in order to extract oil or natural gas that cannot be removed through regular drilling techniques. Objections to the process have been raised in a growing number of U.S. communities where critics have accused the process of polluting groundwater or neighboring land. And there is evidence that fracking may also be linked to a large increase in the number of small earthquakes in the United States, Canada and England — a link that should be of special concern to residents of the Golden State.
In California, operators have voluntarily revealed that they use fracking in more than 350 wells, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. But that number may pale in comparison to the actual use of the process, since there is no requirement for companies to say whether they are doing so. And thanks to an exemption crafted during the administration of George W. Bush, companies are not required to reveal what chemicals they pump into the ground — or potentially leach into groundwater supplies.
The use of fracking in California could vastly expand in the coming years if the U.S. Bureau of Land Management moves ahead with the sale of mineral rights on nearly 18,000 acres of the Monterey Shale. The federal agency owns the rights to the underground minerals in the vast stretch of land, even under private property across the counties of Monterey, San Benito and Fresno.
The use of fracking to extract oil in the Monterey Shale is already occurring in Kern and Santa Barbara counties, and the BLM says there is no evidence that the operations are polluting groundwater in those locations. But such a small sampling is not enough to say that fracking should continue to roll out without extended oversight, given a growing body of national evidence to the contrary.
In fact, two pieces of legislation worked their way through the state Legislature this year, only to die after gas and oil interests lobbied heavily against them. The legislation would have forced companies to reveal where they are fracking and what chemicals they inject into the earth while doing so. The bills also would have halted the process in the state until more oversight was put into place.
Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to put fracking regulations into place, and pending rules from the U.S. Department of the Interior would force companies to disclose what chemicals they use. But the state needs to take the lead on this issue and order a fracking moratorium until then.
At the very least, companies need to reveal the chemicals they use and where they are used. The state also should implement a comprehensive monitoring system that tracks groundwater around wells and studies further the link between fracking and earthquakes.
Even amid substantial anecdotal evidence of tainted groundwater, flammable tap water and potential health impacts, the companies that use this process say there is no scientific evidence that it is dangerous to people. History, however, shows us that corporations are usually the last to admit that chemicals can be dangerous (e.g., tobacco, asbestos, sugar). Fracking is fraught with potential environmental concerns, and it should not be used any further in California until there are safeguards in place.