A war of words is brewing over hydraulic fracturing and efforts to ban or limit it in California.
Activists who believe they’ve created negative buzz around the oil and gas extraction process also called “fracking” have launched a new battle: persuading the state’s Legislature to look at also restricting different drilling techniques. Green groups warn that other oil recovery methods underway are equally risky, including one they fear could rapidly balloon in use.
Because those aren’t labeled as “hydraulic fracturing,” proposed moratoriums and other restrictions might not apply.
“We’re developing all of these regulations with a very narrow definition of hydraulic fracturing,” said Andrew Grinberg, oil and gas program coordinator at Clean Water Action. “We’re leaving out potentially a large part of the well stimulation that may be going on in California.”
Oil and gas industry groups, meanwhile, said the push by green groups signals a problematic motive.
“If they’re wanting to define the moratorium bills beyond hydraulic fracturing, then I assume they’re wanting to ban all domestic oil production,” said Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association.
The rhetorical battle takes place as California’s Legislature, governor and state agencies wrestle with how to regulate fracking, where companies blast chemical-laced water underground at high pressure to break apart rock formations and release oil or natural gas.
The Golden State lacks any regulations specifically on the technique. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is writing rules, but those likely would not be enacted for about 17 months. Environmental organizations criticized as weak draft regulations that came out last year (EnergyWire, Feb. 20).
Green groups argue action is needed and have lobbied lawmakers to pass restrictions. Seven bills in the Legislature seek to restrict or block fracking (EnergyWire, April 23). Several bills already have passed out of their first committee.
Activists want regulations or a ban in place now, as oil and natural gas companies work to pull petroleum from California’s Monterey Shale, a swath of land stretching from the middle of the state south to Los Angeles County. It is believed to hold as much as 15.5 billion barrels of recoverable petroleum.
The Monterey Shale in particular is a place where hydraulic fracturing probably will not be the most commonly used drilling technique, said Damon Nagami, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s a varied formation, he said, with different types of rock and different varieties of oil and natural gas underneath.
“Even industry doesn’t know what technology is going to work where,” Nagami said. “Fracking may not be best way to get at it. It’s a trial-by-error-type approach.”
Putting pressure on the governor
It’s not clear whether any of the California bills on fracking has sufficient support to pass. Several are in what’s called a “suspense” file in the Appropriations Committee, waiting for Democratic leaders to decide whether they will go to a full Assembly or Senate vote.
A Democrat involved with the legislation, who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak about negotiations, said leaders won’t let a bill go forward that would be “slaughtered” on the floor. A fracking moratorium measure last year failed.
The goal is to get at least one drilling bill to the floor in order to put pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown (D), he said, as the governor could lean on DOGGR for tougher rules. Brown last week called fracking “a fabulous opportunity,” while saying more information was needed about its impact on water, earthquakes and climate change (EnergyWire, May 15).
“There’s an opportunity if there’s a bill sitting on the floor” the Democrat said. “You’re one step away from it sitting on his desk,” where he would have to sign or veto.
Zierman said he is doubtful the Legislature will pass a ban on any kind of drilling.
“I don’t think that there’s a desire from the majority of legislators in California to have a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing or any other techniques we’re using,” he said.
Green groups want to make sure that if they can get a bill to the floor, it covers all the drilling they see as dangerous.
In addition to fracking, said Nagami with NRDC, companies are using techniques such as gravel packing, water flooding or steam flooding, and acidization. Those “aren’t being talked about as much because of the spotlight on fracking,” he said. “We believe they could have as much of an impact or possibly more than fracking itself because of the widespread use and potential used in the future.”
Water flooding and steam flooding are monitored by DOGGR, but there are concerns the oversight is flawed, said Bill Allayaud, California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. The bigger worry, he said, is acidization.
In acidization or acid matrix stimulation, he said, hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid is injected into shale to allow oil to flow into the well.
A 2011 paper from engineers at Baker Hughes Inc., an oil field services company, asked whether acidization could be the “silver bullet” that unlocks the Monterey Shale.
Regulation is needed, Allayaud said, because “we don’t know anything about it, where it’s being used, how much acid, how much water. Our [state] division of oil and gas has chosen to turn a blind eye to it just like they have to hydrofracking for decades.”
The Legislature shouldn’t be addressing every new drilling technique, Zierman said. It’s DOGGR’s job, he said, to ensure there is “well integrity,” and that’s already within that agency’s authority, he said.
“What is most paramount is that whatever you do, whether you’re water flooding, steam flooding, gravel packing, hydraulically fracturing, that whatever you’re injecting, it stays where you’re intending it to be,” Zierman said.
Lobbying for language change
Clean Water Action has been lobbying state lawmakers to widen the scope of their bills. The group sent a letter to seven lawmakers with legislation specifically on fracking, asking them to consider revising their language.
“Just a few years ago, fracking was an unknown term to the public,” Grinberg wrote in the letter. “Industry is continuing to develop new ways to stimulate hydrocarbon production. Narrowly defining the process now will result in the need to update and add other regulations and engage in drawn out legislative battles every few years as we learn of new technologies being employed.
“Clean Water Action stresses the importance of the regulations in development by DOGGR and the legislature must include as broad a definition of hydraulic fracturing as possible,” he added.
The group said it already has succeeded in persuading some lawmakers to change language in their bills. A.B. 288 from Assemblyman Mark Levine (D) amended his bill on hydraulic fracturing to one that now refers to “well stimulation.” The measure would require oil and gas companies to get permits before drilling and removes a provision that currently considers that permit approved if the state fails to respond to an application within 10 working days.
The letter also went to Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D), whose A.B. 1323 would ban hydraulic fracturing until a study is completed that determines it can be done “without a risk to the public health and welfare, environment, or the economy of the state.”
Charles Stewart, senior deputy and communications director for Mitchell, said that her “chief concern has been the issues raised by constituents who neighbor the Inglewood Oil Field,” in Los Angeles County, where fracking is underway.
“A.B. 1323 is a bill about fracking as it is currently known to us,” Stewart said. “New technology may emerge and we will need to address it then. But it would be premature to try to legislate based on methods we think might be used down the road.”
The Clean Water Watch letter also was sent to Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D). His A.B. 1301 would block fracking until the Legislature passes subsequent legislation specifying “whether and under what conditions hydraulic fracturing may be conducted while protecting the public health and safety and the natural resources of the state.”
Bloom’s chief of staff, Sean MacNeil, said he believes A.B. 1301 would work to block other exploration techniques because it contains a clause saying that “hydraulic fracturing shall include the terms …’unconventional shale drilling,’ and other colloquial terms referencing this drilling technique.”
“We feel that it’s probably covered,” MacNeil said. “If we need to finesse that we’re ready, willing and able, however, we need to get through this Approps hurdle first.” He referred to the bill’s position in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, where it’s waiting for clearance to go to a floor vote.
Grinberg said he understands that lawmakers might not want to amend bills now because those measures already have passed out of committee. One option might be to make the change after a bill has passed out of one legislative chamber and is starting out in the other one, he said.