A new state-mandated report underscores how little is known about the risks associated with fracking in California, fueling a push by activists to temporarily halt the controversial practice statewide.
The study's key takeaway is that "the state does not have adequate information to effectively regulate the process," said Andrew Grinberg, oil-and-gas program manager at the environmental group Clean Water Action. "To me, it is a clear indication that a moratorium is needed."
The day after the long-anticipated report was released on July 9, Clean Water Action and 12 other environmental and grassroots activist groups launched an online petition "Stop Fracking in California," calling on Gov. Jerry Brown to impose an immediate halt to the practice. The petition has already gathered more than 84,000 signatures. Members of several green groups that are not official sponsors of the petition, including the Center for Biological Diversity, told InsideClimate News that they support the effort.
New York's Department of Health released a report last year that similarly called attention to "significant uncertainties" concerning fracking's threat to public health. The agency recommended a moratorium on the extraction method, which involves the injection of water, sand and chemicals into bedrock, under very high pressure, to release oil and gas.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put one in place. While the California study doesn't go so far as to recommend a ban, environmentalists say it's the only logical conclusion and they are putting new pressure on Brown to follow in the footsteps of his New York counterpart.
Brown has won over green advocates with his bold climate initiatives and renewable energy goals, but his silence on fracking has been a sticking point for activists, who have responded by protesting at public speeches and submitting anti-fracking petitions.
Mandated by the state legislature, the new assessment by the California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory runs more than 800 pages. It offers a snapshot of fracking in the state. Over the last decade, an average of 300 new oil wells have gone online per month and 125 to 175 of those are fracking wells. Unlike the fracking boom states like Texas, North Dakota, Colorado and Pennsylvania, California's fracking occurs at relatively shallow depths and involves less water per well.
But the study's assessment of current practices and recommendations has activists concerned. The analysis revealed that 36 percent of pits in the vast Central Valley operate without appropriate permits; it also exposed errors in the state regulator's reporting of wastewater disposal. And it identified how little is known about the impact or toxicity of 38 percent of the chemicals found in fracking fluids.
Tupper Hall, vice president of strategic communications at the trade group Western States Petroleum Association, told InsideClimate News in an email that the report "found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has harmed the environment."
Seth Shonkoff, one of the study's lead authors, said that in many cases where no contamination was found, the scientists also noted that there was little data collected involving contamination. "I think there are things that can make [fracking and other forms of well stimulation] safer. I don't think that the report concludes that this is safe," he said. Shonkoff is the executive director of the energy science and policy organization PSE Healthy Energy.
Shonkoff added that the study recommends several policy changes: banning unlined pits if the waste entering them isn't properly tested and treated; creating a list of acceptable chemicals for fracking fluid; and increasing the state's monitoring of water and air quality.
Some of the data gaps outlined in the report will be filled by new fracking rules that took effect July 1, according to Don Drysdale, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation. The new rules, which Drysdale said are some of "the most stringent environmental regulations in the country," and the report were both mandated under Senate Bill 4, which passed in 2013.
But the new rules don't cover everything. That's why Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley has vowed to update her proposed Senate Bill 248 with an amendment ordering the phase-out of the state's approximately 900 open waste pits and call for a list of allowable chemicals to be used in fracking fluids.
Pavley was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 4. An earlier draft of that bill proposed that no new fracking permits be issued until this study was completed––in other words, it called for a de facto moratorium. That provision was taken out of the final version. There have been at least five other failed attempts to pass a fracking moratorium in the California legislature since 2012.
RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus and founder of the Super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, is not impressed. Miller said Pavley's new amendment "is really a way of saying that it's OK to keep fracking. And that's not what the activists want. Period. Full stop. We know that fracking is harmful to the climate and we know that fracking wastewater is not being handled well in California and we know that we don't know a real lot."
Miller, who isn't involved with the current petition, is skeptical it will prompt Gov. Brown to take action. That's because this isn't the first time activists have made such a demand.
On Feb. 26, 150 activist groups from California and across the country signed a petition calling on Brown "to use his emergency powers under the duties of the Governor's office to protect Californians from imminent threats to public health and safety by implementing an immediate statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing" and other forms of well stimulation. That petition, which cites New York's moratorium, coincided with the discovery of hundreds of illegal oil and gas waste pits in Kern County. Responding on behalf of Gov. Brown, state Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to take action a month later.
Environmentalists hope this latest petition will succeed where past attempts did not. As part of that same campaign, the activists are planning a statewide day of action on Aug. 1. Later in the month, the leaders of the 13 groups sponsoring this petition will write a letter to the governor's office asking for an opportunity to deliver a copy of the petition to Brown.
"This has to be it. This has to be the time he does something," said Tim Molina, strategic campaign organizer for Courage Campaign, one of the petition sponsors.
This week the Los Angeles Times' editorial board also came out in support of a fracking moratorium: "Pushing forward in the dark isn't smart. It has long been apparent that a moratorium on major new fracking is in order until more is known about its risks and benefits. That's all the more reasonable now that we understand how little we understand."
Following in New York's lead, Maryland legislators passed a bill this year banning fracking until October 2017. In California, a handful of towns and counties have passed local bans on the practice. They include San Benito and Mendocino counties and the municipality of Beverly Hills.