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There are many information gaps and misconceptions about fracking in California. This page addresses some of the most common questions people have about fracking and identifies resources where you can learn more.

A drill rig in California, a site of fracking in California

A drill rig operating in California. (Source: Shutterstock)

What is fracking?

Fracking is a type of unconventional oil and gas extraction that involves injecting fluids into the ground at high pressure. The fluids include a mixture of water, sand and chemicals. This high-pressure injection creates fractures in rock formations where oil and gas is trapped. The fractures—held open by sand grains in the fracking fluid—enable oil and gas to come to the surface. Learn more about the fracking process.

What is well stimulation?

Well stimulation refers to unconventional techniques used to increase the permeability of a formation. It refers to a number of techniques that use different injection fluids such as petroleum or hydrofluoric acid to access contents of the shale.  Learn more about new fracking techniques being used in California.

How is fracking in California different than the fracking I’ve heard about on the East Coast?

Many people have heard about fracking in Pennsylvania, New York, and other eastern states. The primary difference is that while the East Coast Marcellus Shale formation primarily contains natural gas, the Monterey contains mostly heavy crude oil—similar in composition to what comes from the Canadian tar sands. Learn more about the impact of this oil on climate change. Fracking in California is more similar to the fracking for oil that is occurring in North Dakota and Texas. However, compared to those states, California has a much more complex geology that complicates the fracking process and could increase the risk of injection-related earthquakes. Learn more about fracking and seismicity.

What are the health impacts of fracking?

The data on chemical exposures from fracking is incomplete and often protected by trade secret laws, however, many of the chemicals used in fracking have been proven to be hazardous to human health. There are also health concerns about fracking elevating levels of ground-level ozone and particulate matter in the air. The chemicals and emissions produced over the entire fracking lifecycle present significant risks to human health, warranting much more research. Read more about the public health impacts of fracking in California.

Where is fracking happening in California?

Currently, while 72% of oil production takes place in existing oil fields in Kern County, fracking in California has been documented in 10 counties from densely populated urban areas in Los Angeles, to state waters off the coast of Santa Barbara.  Until January 2014, there was no comprehensive picture of where fracking is was happening in California because oil companies were not required to report the location of fracking operations to the state regulatory agency, the Department of Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermic Resources (DOGGR). A nonpartisan third-party website called FracTracker.org publishes maps of fracking activity by state. However, these maps are based on self-reported industry data and thus may not represent an accurate picture of where fracking is taking place in California.

Most fracking in California currently takes place in Kern County

Most fracking in California currently takes place in Kern County. Pictured: The Kern Oil Field (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What is the Monterey Shale formation?

The Monterey Shale formation stretches approximately 2,520 square miles across Central and Southern California. The U.S. Energy Information Association originally estimated that the formation contained between 15.4 and 13.7 billion barrels of oil, but reduced their estimates in May, 2014 by 96%. They now estimate the Monterey Shale contains 0.6 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Read more about the geology of the Monterey Shale.

I’ve heard that fracking has been occurring in California for decades – what makes it a threat now?

Oil companies have been using the simpler process of ‘vertical fracking’ for decades. Because this practice has been occurring essentially without regulation or monitoring, it’s difficult to measure what consequences it may have caused over the years. As the easily extractable oil has been removed from the ground over the years, oil companies have been forced to use more extreme measures to get at the remaining oil, known as unconventional oil. These new technologies use higher pressures, larger volumes of water, more  chemicals, and threaten workers and communities with risk of disease and fatalities.  Read about the potential health and safety impacts of fracking.

How is fracking regulated?

Fracking is exempt from the major federal environmental laws so regulation of the practice falls largely to states. The main agency responsible for regulation is DOGGR, which is funded by a fee of $0.143 on each barrel of oil collected in the state. Fracking in California is currently regulated by emergency regulations that were put into place as a stopgap measure while DOGGR develops full regulations which will go into effect in 2015. Read more about state regulations of fracking.

What have California’s lawmakers done to address fracking?

While several state legislators have attempted to pass bills that would have banned or placed a moratorium on future fracking activity, Senate Bill 4 (D-Pavley), which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2013, is the only legislation on fracking that has passed out of the legislature in recent years. SB 4, which includes both all forms of enhanced well stimulation, including fracking and acidization, requires disclosure of all chemicals used, groundwater and air quality monitoring and an independent scientific study to evaluate potential environmental risks. Read more about SB 4.

Where does the water used in fracking come from?

Development of shale energy resources requires a large amount of water, with estimates ranging between two to 10 million gallons per well.  According to voluntary oil-industry data supplied to DOGGR, the average fracked well in California used 166,714 gallons of water in 2012.   As regulated today, oil companies are not required to report where they get the water they use for fracking or what they do with it afterwards. Read more about fracking’s impacts on water.

Should I be worried about fracking coming to my community?

While most fracking currently takes place in Kern County,  unconventional oil development, including fracking has been documented in 10 California counties — Colusa, Glenn, Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Sutter, Kings and Ventura — as well as in state waters off Southern California. If the promised boom in the Monterey Shale takes off, oil companies will need to drill an estimated 27,584 additional wells up and down the formation, bringing fracking into many communities that have not experienced traditional oil development. See where fracking is happening and where it might expand.

What have local governments been doing about fracking?

For the most part, California municipalities do not have jurisdiction over regulating fracking in their communities.  Municipalities have had to defer to state and federal oversight, which some have found to be insufficient to protect the health and safety of their residents. As a result, several cities and counties in California have called for bans or moratoria on fracking. Check here to see if your community is among them.

Does fracking cause earthquakes?

Fracking for oil in the Monterey Shale brings up 15 times more produced water than oil. This large volume of wastewater is typically disposed of by re-injecting it deep into the earth into wastewater disposal wells. Experts believe that added pressure of injected water lubricates existing faults, which can separate them enough to release the energy that causes potentially large tremors. Read more about fracking’s potential to induce earthquakes.

Could fracking create new jobs?

It is very doubtful that the widely publicized economic promise of fracking in California will be borne out by reality. Initial estimates of recoverable oil have already been downgraded, and economic analyses conducted to date have not considered the impact of fracking on public health, infrastructure, and the environment. The dangerous and dirty jobs that fracking does create are likely to be temporary and expose workers to a variety of substances with known impacts on human health, including hydrofluoric acid and silica sand. Employees who work on fracking operations have an on the job fatality rate seven times higher than the average worker. Learn more about the impact of fracking on California’s economy.

Could fracking accelerate climate change?

While the carbon content of fracked oil in California is not known, it is estimated that fracked CA oil may generate 15% more CO2 emissions than oil produced through non-fracking techniques. There is a wide range of range of potential emissions impacts, but research suggests that the total oil produced in the Monterey Shale could be substantially lower than the 15.4 billion barrels previously forecast because of technical and regulatory hurdles. As with all fracking, fugitive methane emissions have a potential to increase climate change impacts, and these emissions will analyzed by the Air Resources Board as part of SB 4’s implementation. Read about how fracking could interfere with the goals of AB 32.

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