NOAKI SCHWARTZ June 6, 2011
LOS ALAMOS, Calif. — In a place where oil exploration long co-existed with agriculture, a three-story contraption humming day and night in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country struck residents as a mere curiosity until someone uttered the petroleum industry’s dirty word: fracking.
The industry claims fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – a method of extracting hard-to-reach gas and oil by pummeling rocks deep underground with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals – has been safely used for decades. But critics worry it can contaminate groundwater, cause air pollution and trigger small earthquakes.
Now, this little one-road town of Los Alamos is drawing attention to what many say is a largely unmonitored practice in California, the country’s second-largest oil producer. The discovery that fracking has quietly been going on for years in California has galvanized oil foes and led to proposed legislation that would regulate the practice and make companies disclose the chemicals they use, the amount of water they’re pumping and where they are fracking.
This comes as welcome news to Steve Lyons, who doesn’t own the mineral rights on his ranch in Los Alamos and has been trying to get a precise list of chemicals that Denver-based Venoco Inc. has been injecting so he can test his water. His 2,500 acre ranch just off a rural two-lane highway unfurls into a lush valley of grape vines and oak trees. Cows stroll past bobbing pump jacks just up the road from strawberry fields.
“Once the water gets contaminated it’s not easy to reverse that and if we don’t have water there’s no reason to have land,” he said. “We just last week tested the water from our wells for chemicals but one of the problems is we don’t know what to test for.”
The Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources or DOGGR, which oversees drilling, has said it does not know where and how often fracking occurs in California because budget constraints have prevented them from developing regulations to address the practice. While the agency requires drilling permits and enforces groundwater protections, once those permits are acquired, drillers are allowed to employ techniques such as fracking to get the oil out of the ground without additional reporting.
“I was surprised and actually shocked at their continuous response that since there are no reporting requirements they’re not able to answer any of those questions including the amount of water used, impacts on water quality, the chemicals used, as well as where fracking is occurring,” said Sen. Fran Pavley, whose questions prompted the agency’s admission. “I don’t know what the rational is and why it’s been ignored.”
Legislators have introduced a bill that supporters say would be among the most stringent fracking laws in the country if passed. The bill passed off the Assembly floor last week and is now headed into a state Senate committee. Similar proposals are under consideration elsewhere including Texas and Montana.
“To protect the public resource and oversee this industry our state agency should know what’s going on in the field,” said Bill Allayaud, the California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which is sponsoring the bill. “They seem to have turned a blind eye toward it.”