“It’s the devil we know and the devil we don’t know. In this case, we don’t know either one, and it’s freaking people out.”
That’s how Martha McClure, a county supervisor from Del Norte County, rightly described the nationwide kerfuffle over fracking during a hearing of the California Coastal Commission in Pismo Beach on Wednesday morning. As one of the 15 appointed commissioners, McClure had spent the better part of two hours listening to a report on what the Coastal Commission can and should do about the oil industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing (which is the technical name for fracking) and other “well stimulation” techniques along the California coast. A report released last year revealed that fracking had been done at least 12 times since 1992 from rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel area, and there’s been steady calls for action from a wide-ranging collection of environmental and public interest groups ever since.
The short answer from commission staff, namely deputy director Allison Dettmer, was that while they see “little evidence” for immediate concern over these practices in state waters — where there hasn’t been much use of these techniques, existing rules are already quite strict, and an ongoing effort is underway via State Bill 4 (SB4) to tighten up regulations by 2015 — there is more that should be done related to the 23 rigs located in federal waters, which begin three miles from shore. Those rig operators have done a bit more experimentation with fracking and another well stimulation technique known as “acidization,” and they are allowed by federal law and often do dump their treated wastewater into the ocean. (Though Dettmer reported that acidization did not appear to have been used in state waters, a report released yesterday by Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center suggested otherwise.)
Citing legal, jursidictional, and procedural hurdles, Dettmer recommended against the ban or moratorium on fracking that many environmentalists have called for in recent months, including the couple dozen anti-fracking speakers who took to the podium on Wednesday. But she said that, via the commission’s ability to consider and control federally permitted rigs via the Coastal Zone Management Act, there is the possibility of weighing in on fracking applications if they are deemed to go beyond what the commission had initially approved years ago.
To do so, she is requesting that the feds notify the Coastal Commission when operators seek approval to do well stimulation, so that the commission can review for itself whether the process qualifies as requiring a supplemental approval from the state. To date, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which process the drilling permits, has not considered these techniques as anything beyond the existing permit language. “That is why we didn’t know about them,” explained Dettmer, who is also asking the Environmental Protection Agency to include the Coastal Commission’s input whenever they renew each rigs wastewater discharge permit, if they do intend to dump their produced water into the ocean. “That would allow a case-by-case analysis of additional impacts,” Dettmer said. She additionally suggested that any special workshop on the practice wait until after the scientific study mandated by SB4 is completed later this year.
But Dettmer and the California Department of Conservation’s Jason Marshall, who also spoke at the hearing on the basics of fracking and SB4, were quick to remind the crowd that, despite the recent uproar, there has not been a boom in the use of well stimulation techniques as of yet, that they have been in use for many decades in onshore oil wells throughout California without noticeable harm, and that the state law is already strong and getting stronger. Experts do estimate that the Monterey shale formation beneath the Golden State’s soil contains 15 billion barrels of oil, and oil companies are hoping that fracking and acidization may tease those resources to the surface. But as of yet, no technique has solved that mystery with any consistency.
“None have really figured it out yet, how to unlock it, and we’re not sure why,” said Marshall. “But what we haven’t seen is a mad rush at permitting.”