Fracking emissions have the potential to worsen California’s environmental conditions, as well as upset years of effective environmental policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions. For the last 40 years, California has led the nation with its bold policies to address climate change. Despite decades of progress regulating vehicle and greenhouse gas emissions, California’s air quality ranks worst in the nation, with more than half of America’s dirtiest cities located in our state.1

Fracking and fracking emissions in California remain divisive in California politics

Governor Jerry Brown has been accused of backtracking on California’s strict climate change laws by allowing fracking to continue. (Source: AP/Jeff Chiu)

In 2006, California embarked on an ambitious and nationally lauded plan to fight climate change. The law, AB 32, requires a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, and directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to develop market incentives and regulations to keep California at the vanguard of environmentally friendly innovations.

In early 2009, CARB implemented a low-carbon fuel standard program calling for a reduction of at least 10% of California’s transportation fuel’s carbon intensity.

The prospect of a large expansion of unconventional oil drilling activity has raised questions among climate scientists and other experts about California’s ability to meet the standards that CARB has set forward. The most serious concerns are about the carbon intensity of California’s oil and the refining and fracking emissions of this heavy oil.

Carbon Intensity of California Oil

To achieve markedly lower emissions by the year 2020, CARB regulates the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Carbon intensity (CI) is a measurement of a fuel’s negative impact on the environment. Using the CI measurement, CARB has classified much of the oil in the Monterey Shale formation and Kern County, California as extra-heavy or heavy. These classifications mean that oil is more viscous and requires more time and energy to extract and refine into gasoline. The California Energy Commission estimated that over 50% of California-produced crude oil was extra-heavy or heavy crude in 2006.2

Carbon intensity is a big factor in fracking emissions

(Source: Next Generation)

Much of the oil left in California is extremely carbon intensive, with carbon intensity scores equal or greater than oil found in the Alberta Tar Sands – an extremely heavy crude oil that consists of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water.

The reserves of oil in the Monterey Shale are not expected to be any cleaner. A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation study found that CA holds about 65% of the nation’s extra-heavy oil.3

Refining and Fracking Emissions

Between 2004-2008, California refineries emitted on average 132 pounds of CO2 per barrel crude, the most of any region in the country by a margin of at least 19%.4 California refineries process imports of extremely heavy oils, including from the Alberta Tar Sands, as well as comparably heavy oil produced in-state. The extraction and processing of the oil in the Monterey Shale would increase California’s carbon output, and put the state at risk of not complying with AB 32 regulations and further contributing to global climate change. 

The estimates of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale have been scaled back. Initially, the EIA estimated there were between 13.7-15.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. However, in May, 2014, the EIA reduced their estimates by 96% to just 0.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Based on estimates of emissions per barrel of oil by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the full production of the once-estimated 13.7 billion barrels would yield 5.89 billion metrics tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.5 This is roughly equivalent to one year of total US emissions, or 17 years of California emissions at 2010 levels.

(Source: California Air Resources Board)

(Source: California Air Resources Board)

California refineries process not only California’s crude oil, but some of the heaviest crude from all across North America. The amount of crude oil imported by rail into California has skyrocketed from 45,291 barrels in 2009, to 6,169,264 barrels in 2013, according to the California Energy Commission.6 The increase in transporting of oil through California is likely to have a significant impact on state emissions. Additionally, there are safety concerns with transporting and refining this crude oil in California. In January 2014, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert about Bakken crude oil. Learn more about the safety risks of transporting oil.

Methane Emissions and Flaring

Fracking emissions may also contain a significant amount ofmethane, which is released directly into the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global warming impact of methane over a 20-year period is over 80 times greater than carbon dioxide. CARB’s inventory of greenhouse gases in the Central Valley attributed about 11% of methane emissions to oil and gas development (4% from oil production and refineries, 7% from natural gas pipelines).7 In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences found that the current bottom-up estimates underestimate methane emissions.

A flare stack in North Dakota (Source: Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

A flare stack in North Dakota (Source: Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

Their atmospheric tests found that methane emissions are 1.5-1.7 times higher than expected, and even more so in areas of concentrated oil and gas extraction. The real-methane emissions of oil and gas extraction means current mitigatory measures rely on incorrect estimates, and further work is needed to stem or counter the dangerous effects of Methane.

If oil producers don’t have the infrastructure or economic incentive to capture associated natural gas that comes up during oil extraction, they may burn it off. The process of burning off excess natural gas is referred to as flaring. Oil drilling operations at North Dakota’s Bakken Shale flare almost 30% of the gas they produce – wasting approximate $1 billion of potential fuel. The amount of CO2 released from flaring at Bakken Shale in 2012 alone was equivalent to adding one million cars to the road.8 California currently doesn’t collect flaring data.

Methane Emissions Studies

Title Publication Authors Year Finding

Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Caulton et al. 2014 Identified a range of methane emissions across a region over the Marcellus shale. Determined that a small number of wells may have been responsible for up to 30% of emissions.
Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Miller et al. 2013 The study used atmospheric methane observations to test overall emissions and found current bottom-up approaches far under-estimate the methane emissions from agriculture and fossil-fuel extraction and processing.
Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over a western United States natural gas field Geophysical Research Letters Karion et al. 2013 Reported a range of methane emission estimates of 6.2% to 11.7% of total production.
Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development Climate Change Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea 2012 The study looked at aging well sites and found that the percentage of methane leaks can increase to 30 or 50 per cent. The worst leaks are "deviated" or horizontal wells commonly used for hydraulic fracturing.
Quantifying sources of methane using light alkanes in the Los Angeles basin California Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres Peischl et al. 2013 Field measurements found 17% of all methane produced during oil and gas development is leaked into the atmosphere. 
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