California’s New Fracking Rules: Too Little, Too Early?

That's the verdict from some activists and scientists, but state regulators and industry figures see a different picture.

A 2014 anti-fracking rally in California. Credit: Clark Davis, Food & Water Watch/Flickr

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On Dec. 30, 2014, California regulators released new state rules for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

State regulators and members of industry have repeatedly hailed the rigorous rules, which go into effect July 1. Dr. Steven Bohlen, California’s state oil-and-gas supervisor, called them “as strict or stricter than any other state’s.”

But some local scientists and environmentalists counter that the rules fall short, noting gaps in coverage and problems with the rulemaking process.

Fracking is the controversial practice of injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals down a well to crack open bedrock and extract previously hard-to-access oil and gas reserves. There are already hundreds of fracked wells in California, mostly in the state’s Monterey shale region, in the central and southern parts of the state. The shale play could have around 600 million barrels of untapped reserves, according to a 2014 analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But in the fracking boom’s wake, there’s growing public concern about the drilling impacts on the environment and public health. In drought-stricken California, residents are especially worried about the industry’s high demand for water—a single well can use a million gallons or more during its lifetime.

Californians are also wary of spills impacting precious water supplies, as well as fracking operations and related waste disposal triggering damaging earthquakes in the seismically active state.

Fracking Alerts for Neighbors, New Costs for Drillers 

Designed by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the new rules (and even some of the interim rules put in place a year ago to run until this July) aim to address some of these issues. For example, drillers are now required to use a third party to notify all adjacent landowners of upcoming operations, and those residents can request local water quality sampling, paid for by the energy company. 

Moreover, as part of the permitting process, operators must submit to the state’s Water Board a detailed water management plan to account for vulnerable resources within the drilling area; operators must also produce plans to prevent pollution. The Water Board is finalizing related rules for groundwater monitoring. 

There’s an earthquake component to the rules, too. If an earthquake of magnitude 2.7 or greater occurs near a drilling site during operations, or up to 10 days after well completion, operations must shut down and the state will investigate. However, this rule doesn’t apply to the injection of fracking liquid waste underground, which some scientists suspect has triggered earthquakes in other parts of the country—though not yet in California.

Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the industry group Western States Petroleum Association, supported the rules but added that they “pose a tremendous amount of permitting oversight and requirements on energy producers in California…[and] some additional costs.”

The rules do not expand upon waste management practices other than adding some public reporting guidelines. There are also no statewide setback standards prescribing the distance that operations should be from homes, parks and other buildings.

According to Seth Shonkoff, executive director of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, an energy policy think tank, these rules might have been stronger if the rulemaking timeline had been extended. In addition to ordering new rules for high-intensity energy extraction techniques, Senate Bill 4, or SB 4, mandated the completion of two risk studies: a state-sponsored environmental impact review and an independent study by scientists. Those studies aren’t due out until July, the same month the new rules take effect. 

The timing of these studies doesn’t make a lot of sense to Shonkoff, who is involved in the independent scientific effort. This means “that the regulations are not going to be informed by the scientific assessment…[and] runs the risk of missing the mark in terms of adequate protection,” he said.

Administrator Bohlen told InsideClimate News that if the studies “provide information that would suggest revisiting the scope or adequacy” of the rules, the regulators would consider updating them.

Senate Moves to Halt Fracking Barely Failed

There has been at least one unsuccessful attempt to temporarily halt new and existing fracking statewide until the two studies are completed. State Sen. Holly Mitchell of Culver City spearheaded a bill to accomplish just that but it failed with a tied 16-16 vote last May.

Industry trade group spokesman Hull said this vote “represented a judgment by the California legislature that hydraulic fracturing, if properly and closely regulated, can be conducted safely, has been conducted safely and is an effective energy production technology.”

But it seems many Californians weren’t convinced. In the wake of that vote, the counties of San Benito and Mendocino voted to ban fracking locally, joining a handful of other California towns and municipalities.

Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in the state. The decision was based on the results of a state-funded scientific study. The New York Times reported the state’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, as saying, “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even known.” 

New York’s decision has sparked a renewed push by California activists for a fracking moratorium on the West Coast.

“Governor Cuomo has now set the national standard on fracking—and all eyes are now on California’s Governor Jerry Brown to do the same,” said Zack Malitz of the activist group CREDO Action

‘Committed to Confronting Climate Change’

Less than a week after the new rules were released, Gov. Brown started his fourth term.

In the inaugural address, Brown outlined three new ambitious climate-related goals for the state, including deriving 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. “We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being,” said Brown, whose state currently gets about 20 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. 

In the nearly 2,800-word speech, fracking wasn’t mentioned once. Although environmentalists largely celebrate Brown for his climate-forward policies, the governor’s support of fracking is a sticking point for activists like CREDO Action’s Malitz. 

Fracking is increasingly being called out for contributing to climate change, because drilling a well can release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon, into the atmosphere. 

“As we saw in [Brown’s] inaugural address, he has a state committed to confronting climate change,” said Malitz. But that also means “halting fracking in California,” Malitz added.