TitleCalifornia fracking hasn't unearthed an oil boom
BodyAbout 20 percent of California’s oil and natural-gas production uses hydraulic fracturing — with almost all of it happening in one corner of the San Joaquin Valley — according to the most authoritative survey yet released of fracking in the Golden State. Oil companies frack 125 to 175 of the roughly 300 wells drilled in California each month, according to the survey released Wednesday by the California Council on Science and Technology. Nearly 93 percent of all fracked wells lie in western Kern County or in nearby Fresno County, both of which sit atop the vast Monterey Shale formation — a potential treasure trove of oil. And yet the technique has not produced in California the kind of oil bonanza seen in North Dakota and Texas, where fracking and horizontal drilling have opened up vast shale deposits. Instead, companies in the state have used fracking to wrest more petroleum from conventional oil fields, some of which have been in production for a century. According to the study, more than half of all the state’s fracked oil wells tap one field — Kern County’s South Belridge field, discovered in 1911. The Monterey Shale may yet produce an oil boom, the study’s authors said Wednesday. But it will probably require further drilling advances beyond fracking, which uses a pressurized blast of water, sand and chemicals to crack underground rocks. “We don’t really know how much oil’s there, and we don’t really know how to produce it,” said Jane Long, co-lead researcher on the report. “We might be a few decades away, but it’s not tomorrow.” First chapter The survey is the first chapter in a larger study commissioned by a 2013 California law that imposed new regulations on hydraulic fracturing and acidizing, which employs powerful acids to open oil-bearing rocks. The study’s next chapter, exploring potential threats to the environment and public health, is due to be released in July. Meanwhile, the state agency that oversees oil-field operations is conducting its own environmental review into fracking and other forms of oil-well stimulation. On Wednesday, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) released a draft environmental impact report finding that any danger fracking poses to groundwater, as well as the threat of increased seismic activity, can be reduced or eliminated by California’s new regulations. The head of the division, Steven Bohlen, also took an unsubtle swipe at regulators in states where fracking has been blamed for environmental contamination. Environmental assurances “With the regulations and the newly formulated proposed mitigation measures in place, DOGGR is confident well-stimulation-treatment activities can continue in California without the kind of environmental problems that have plagued well-stimulation treatment in other states with lesser levels of environmental protection,” Bohlen said. Fracking opponents have pushed hard for a statewide ban or moratorium, only to be rebuffed by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature. They renewed that demand Wednesday, saying the state should at least wait until the council releases its environmental study before letting oil companies frack more wells. “It doesn’t make sense to continue permitting fracking, and acid stimulation, until you figure out what the harms are, and you have certainty that the harms can be stopped or don’t exist,” said Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club’s director for California. Brown, however, has explicitly rejected that approach, allowing fracking to continue while the council completes its study. “I don’t know how many times we can say it before he hears it, but so far, he isn’t listening,” Phillips said. On Wednesday, the oil industry’s main lobbying group in Sacramento praised the way state officials were implementing the fracking regulation law, known as SB4. The industry insists that fracking and acidizing are safe. “To date, well stimulation in California has never been associated with any known adverse environmental impacts,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association. Acidizing is rare The council survey found that while fracking is used often in California, acidizing isn’t. The number of wells stimulated with acid is roughly one-tenth the number of wells subjected to hydraulic fracturing, according to the survey. The authors also argued that acidizing was unlikely to become widespread in the state, noting that most of California’s oil-bearing formations are composed of rock types that don’t respond well to the treatment. The survey found few instances of fracking in offshore oil wells. Drillers used fracking on average 16 times per year in offshore wells within state waters, which stretch out 3 miles from shore. Most of those wells were located on artificial islands near the Long Beach coastline. The council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group created by the Legislature in 1988 to advise California officials on science and technology issues.
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