With a legislative vote expected this week on an immediate state moratorium on fracking for natural gas and oil, San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts held a timely Fracking Forum on Wednesday to discuss its benefits and drawbacks.
While San Diego County does not have and doesn’t expect fracking sites, there are 1,235 oil wells in the Central Valley and more than 848 fracking sites in the Monterey Shale Formation in Northern California. But because the effects of these sites on water quality, water and energy prices, pollution and seismic activity extend to San Diego, Roberts, along with many citizens, wanted more information.
So what exactly is fracking?
“Fracking — hydraulic fracturing — is injecting quantities of water and chemicals into the ground to break up rock and allow oil and gas to flow to the surface to extract it,” said Damon Nagami, director of the National Resource Defense Council’s Southern California Ecosystem Project.
The concept isn’t new, and vertical fracking has actually been used for decades. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that horizontal fracking — where the metal casing that’s dropped deep into the ground vertically turns and can head horizontally for up to a kilometer with virtually no signs above ground, blasting out rock along the way to allow the oil and gas to flow from the shale layer — became commercially viable. The process requires gallons of a chemical and water mixture to be pumped through the casing, and allows more sites along the horizontal pipe to be blasted out.
Weighing the pros and cons of this method of energy extraction tends to lead to impassioned manifestos, but is made even more difficult in California, where there’s a lack of information.
“Here in California we’re just starting to get a sense of what has been happening in terms of fracking and its impacts within the state. We haven’t had a lot of information because the state hasn’t been minding the store,” Nagami said.
“We haven’t had information about where fracking has been happening, what have been the impacts, how much water’s being used, what chemicals are going into the ground, and what’s coming up. We’re now just starting to get a handle on some of that information.”
That’s why Nagami and the NRDC are pushing hard for the fracking moratorium, until the state has gathered enough scientific evidence to prove either that the practice is safe and can continue with oversight, or causes enough harm to stop its use.
One of the main benefits of fracking for oil or gas is lower energy prices. David Nylander of Noble Americas Energy Solutions explained that the large amount of natural gas the United States sources domestically from shale is a main reason for the nation’s comparatively low prices.
“You can see how important shale gas has been to the overall production in the United States of natural gas,” Nylander said. “If we were to remove that piece of this chart, we would have as much as 30 to 40 percent less natural gas.
“If you think about any commodity, if you remove 30 to 40 percent of that supply, what would that do to the price? We saw gas go from an average of $6 per Btu, and now trade closer to $4 a Btu primarily because of shale gas production in the U.S.”
He said that while natural gas prices worldwide are typically closer to $15 a dekatherm on average, the United States pays between $4 and $5 because of shale gas.
“Shale has been, fracking has been, important to keeping commodity prices lower, which has its benefits,” Nylander said. “And if you were to remove fracking, horizontal drilling, from the industry, it would undoubtedly cause prices to go up an order of magnitude. It’s tough to say exactly how much, but it could easily double to $8 a Btu.”
California certified hydrogeologist Matt Wiedlin also spoke on the importance of energy independence.
“Although it’s really important that we manage our water resources correctly and want to avoid polluting them, we also have to remember that there’s great value in achieving some level of energy independence, not only from the perspective of prices being less, but that we’re not putting young men and women in our country at risk, not spending money on the defense budget to protect our oil interests to the degree we might if we just ignore fracking.”
Even considering these benefits, no one downplayed the very real concerns surrounding fracking, chiefly water supply and quality, and public health.
While Ken Weinberg, water resources director of the San Diego County Water Authority, said the state uses a very small percentage of water for hydraulic fracking, he said it’s something he has his eye on, particularly given drought conditions.
“It could have an effect here; it’s not much of an effect. I think it’s more of an issue in Kern County in the Central Valley on how do they manage this and for the future. What is it going to be in terms of competition for water supply?” Weinberg asked. “Any additional use on our strained imported supplies is something that we all worry about and have to focus on.”
Though both San Diego and Central Valley get significant amounts of water from the state Bay Delta Authority, water strains are concerns, Weinberg said. The SDCWA must also consider that fracking also leads to lower electricity rates, which in turn leads to cheaper water rates.
“We understand that this is really a Central Valley issue, but it’s an issue for us, too, because we share water supply with the Central Valley,” he said. “I think one thing I’ve learned is in terms of its significance overall to water use right now, it’s not a significant issue in terms of water availability.
“In terms of pricing, the ability to lower the price of natural gas, that’s important to consumers, so the issue is how do you balance these issues, how do you protect the groundwater resources of Central Valley with affordability?”
Nagami said it’s not only water supply that worries him, but also the barrage of chemicals in the fracking water mixture that could harm human and environmental health.
“Fracking, acidizing and other methods of stimulation increase the threat of water and soil contamination from spills, leaks, well blowouts and faulty oil casings and equipment,” he said.
“A recent analysis estimated that the number of reported spills in 15 major oil- and gas-producing states rose by 18 percent from 2012 to 2013,” adding that air pollution from pre-production, production, transmission and storage stages of fracking is known to contain methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide and silicon dust.
Another area of particular concern in California is a link between fracking and earthquakes.
“Initially, the studies were linking the deep injection and disposal of wastewater from fracking to earthquakes, but most recently we’ve seen studies that are actually linking the hydraulic fracturing itself, the processes of fracking a well, to potential earthquakes,” Nagami said.
“Whether it’s inducing faults that are already there or whether it’s concerns about damage to the wells from the earthquake itself and having it shear off, is something we’re concerned about — and there’s not a lot of research in California.”
For those reasons, Nagami supports a statewide moratorium — even with the financial and energy repercussions — until more research is done. The fate of SB 1132 will be worth following.