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Environment, Opinion, Santa Monica, Columnist, Government

Fracking: Potential Miracle And Big Challenge

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Apr. 6, 2013, 8:58 am

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

Starting with the day in January 1848 when gold flakes and nuggets first turned up at Sutter’s Mill northeast of Sacramento, California has seen plenty of economic miracles, each focused in a different part of the state.

The Gold Rush brought more than 300,000 people to the state, previously a sleepy outpost. The movie industry was the next big miracle, bringing international attention to Southern California for the first time.

The phenomenon of the 1990s put the spotlight on Silicon Valley south of San Francisco.

Each boom brought the state out of a slump, but sometimes there were also negative consequences.

Now the Monterey Shale formation much further south and southeast of San Francisco promises the next potential miracle, containing two-thirds of all known shale oil deposits in the United States, a possible 15.4 billion barrels of oil, enough to power every aspect of the entire nation for three full years.

But there could also be a price, one that might last many decades, just as the original 49ers and their Gold Rush hydraulic strip mining techniques left tons of mercury in Mother Lode streams. A century and a half later, levels of toxic mercury in fish and amphibians caught there remain significant.

The gold mining of the 19th Century created jobs and made fortunes for bankers, clothiers and many others. Similarly, hydraulic fracking of shale oil and natural gas in North Dakota, to name just one area, has spurred a boom.

But fracking – which sees a combination of water and chemicals injected into the ground to loosen oil and gas previously locked in rock formations – has also created problems with ground water supplies in West Virginia and Wyoming.

Nature magazine reported last October that “A range of hydrocarbons showed up in the deep (Wyoming) wells, as did some synthetic organic chemicals associated with fracking fluids and drilling activities. The (federal) Environmental Protection Agency also … analyzed the evolution of the pollution plume to determine that groundwater seems to be migrating upward, suggesting that the source of contamination came from the gas production zone...”

Encana Corp., a Canadian energy producer operating wells near Pavillion, Wyo., maintains there is no proof drilling operations are to blame, but offers no other explanation for the contamination.

The conflict simmering there could preview what’s to come in California. In fact, fracking could turn into a classic economy vs. environment struggle, with the oil lobby and conservative activists already pushing for large-scale shale oil and gas development. Not that fracking is new to California. In locations as diverse as Long Beach, Inglewood, Santa Barbara and Kern County, it has been used for decades with little regulation and few incidents. But never on the scale now in sight.

"Californians have a choice,” opined the conservative California Political News and Views blog the other day. “We can raise taxes, kill jobs and force government into higher deficits. Or we can drill for oil, using fracking, have a miracle and save the state.”

For sure, fracking brings massive potential upsides, starting with the fact that the Monterey Shale deposits could bring instant properity to towns in the west San Joaquin Valley now best known for their ultra-high unemployment rates. That happened in North Dakota, and there are no reports yet of contaminated drinking water there.

Said a mid-March study from the University of Southern California, “Drilling in the Monterey Shale formation may add as much as $24.6 billion in state and local tax revenue and as many as 2.8 million jobs by 2020…significant migration of skilled workers into California would occur. More job gains can be captured by Californians with appropriate education and training.” That study was partially funded by the oil industry.

Exploiting the Monterey formation also could lessen pressure for oil drilling along the coast, where the ongoing moratorium on new wells is periodically threatened. It could also assure a long-term supply of natural gas.

On the other hand, there’s that precedent from the Gold Rush. No one is sure how long pollutants from fracking might stay in underground aquifers, nor how far they might travel.

So Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, who authored the landmark 2006 greenhouse gas reduction law behind the state’s new cap-and-trade program for fighting climate change, now wants a comprehensive state study of fracking to be completed by 2015. A bill she’s pushing would also require drillers to inform nearby property owners a month ahead of any fracking operation, as well as telling the state about all chemicals to be used.

Those proposals make sense, as they don’t halt or even put a short moratorium on any fracking plans. But they do serve notice that California wants to protect its drinking water and promote a new economic miracle free of Gold Rush-style harm.

Post a comment


Apr. 6, 2013, 8:52:18 pm

Dr. Tom said...

Afterr the first gold rush we still suffer from destroyed floodplains along the Sierran rivers and mercury in the Delta and SFBay. Can we make fracking and directional work better - maybe but not with the way the driller want to do it and someone is going to pay for the problems we are going to have Pavley is trying.

Apr. 7, 2013, 12:10:06 am

Edmund Burke said...

Will relentless earthquakes (1000 in a 7-month period in ARK), contaminated air and ground water, global warming (methane released is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2), cancer and respiratory diseases save the state? The financial benefits of fracking pale beside its irrevocable destruction to health and environment. The fracking industry is bombarding us with PR from the same ad agency which touted Philip Morris as the cigarette most doctors smoke. Don't fall for their Big Lies.

Apr. 7, 2013, 10:29:04 am

Dr Suzanne De Benedittis said...

POTENTIAL MIRACLE = POTENTIAL DISASTER If the new type of fracking proposed for California is so safe, then why has USC, a petroleum engineering school, recently started an “Induced Seismic Studies Consortium”? CA is riddled with active earthquake fault lines. Our nearby Baldwin Hills/Inglewood Oil Field sits on an active 7.4 waiting to happen. How many fracks will it take it to crack?? A1989 earthquake caused the Nimitz freeway in Oakland to collapse (killing 42 people). Its epicenter was in the mountains 80 miles away. Imagine a radius of 80 miles around the Baldwin Hills. Imagine the death toll

Apr. 7, 2013, 10:31:21 am

Dr Suzanne De Benedittis said...

Notice the tsunami warning signs along the Santa Monica Bay coastline? Yes, a big earthquake at this oil field will trigger a tsunami. Do we need to risk a land-locked catastrophe, burning and spewing toxic carcinogens for days – as in the Gulf of Mexico 2 years ago? Do we really want to risk making LA County a major FEMA disaster zone? Are you willing to sacrifice all you hold precious, trading blood for oil? Two State Assembly Members, Richard Bloom (Santa Monica) and Holly Mitchell (Culver City) are sponsoring common sense legislation calling for a stringent moratorium on fracking here in California until our safety can be assured regarding the air we breathe and the water we drink. Call their offices now and let them know you support them – that Public Safety must come before corporate profitability. Call Assemblymember Bloom: (310) 450-0041 or email him at . Call Assemblymember Mitchell: (310) 342-1070 or email thru .

Apr. 7, 2013, 2:51:49 pm

Lauren Steiner said...

I thought this article was pretty fair until the author said they we shouldn't even put a short moratorium on fracking. Why shouldn't we make them prove that it can be done safely before they continue to experiment on California residents? Also, it could kill two major industries in the state - agriculture and viticulture. California is the bread basket of the nation. Even if it could be done safely, which it can't - look at the five oil spills this past week alone - it is not worth wasting all the water it uses. California is a drought prone state. The world is running out of water. And we can live without all but not without water. Finally, going ahead with fracking, which as you say would provide only enough oil for three years, only prevents the development of clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar. These industries can provide jobs and tax revenues as well. No, we need a ban on fracking now, before we unleash this terrible genie from the bottle. Support the Bloom and Mitchell bills described in Dr. De Benedittis's comment above.

Apr. 7, 2013, 8:08:24 pm

Jeanette Vosburg said...

Can we afford destroy our farms for short-term oil and gas recovery? California Agriculture Sales Value was $43.5 BILLION in 2011, up from $38 BILLION in 2010, the highest in the nation. Iowa was ranked next with $29.9 BILLION in 2011. California Wine Sales Value was $19.9 BILLION in 2011, up from $18.5 BILLION in 2010. And the report below belongs in "Ripley's Believe It or Not". The government is actually suggesting reclaiming and using "frack" produced water on farms. That's frightening! The 129 page report is on the internet. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation Report: "RECLAMATION Managing Water in the West" Science and Technology Program Report No. 157, Oil and Gas Produced Water Management and Beneficial Use in the Western United States.

Apr. 9, 2013, 10:48:09 am

Doug Hock said...

In relation to the issue in Pavillion, Wyoming, Mr. Elias states that, "Encana Corp., a Canadian energy producer operating wells near Pavillion, Wyo., maintains there is no proof drilling operations are to blame, but offers no other explanation for the contamination." Either he didn't do much research or he chose to ignore the multiple public comments Encana has made on this issue. Here, then, is Encana's take on Pavillion: Groundwater palatability problems in Pavillion Field are documented by the USGS back to the 1950s, before any oil

Apr. 8, 2013, 12:12:28 pm

J.E. Brockman said...

Potential miracle? The permanent destruction of the subsurface of the earth (earthquakes), contamination of ground water, food, and air, cancer and respiratory diseases...who is this miracle going benefit? Fracking will never reduce the price of gas at the pump. Oil is a world market and controlled by OPEC.

Apr. 15, 2013, 7:45:57 pm

jp mcfadden said...

The USC study which hypes the “economic benefits” of the development of the Monterey Shale is just frackademic propaganda. Kevin Hopkins, who authored the USC report, argues that California needs to be energy independent, a totally bogus argument in light of a global energy market where oil and gas are freely traded. Hopkins’s second bogus argument is that N. Dakota, whose population is 1/50 of California and which has none of our economic diversity, could be an accurate model for California’s future economy. Third, Hopkins claims that “oil” saved N. Dakota from the banking collapse in 2008, when it fact it was N. Dakota’s State-owned banking system, which didn’t participate in mortgage backed security fraud. Fourth, and perhaps most telling, it’s amazing that two of Hopkins modeling numbers came out exactly 10.0%, a sure sign numbers were fudged and adjusted to reach a goal. There are many additional obvious flaws in the report. This study was paid for by Big Oil. It attempts to present “economic arguments” from a big name university in order to justify opening up the Monterey Shale. The study appears designed to give politicians cover when they shill for Big Oil’s private ownership of California’s oil reserves. Most big oil producing nations have nationalized reserves and oil companies are desperately trying to grab up those few reserves in countries where private ownership is still possible. California’s reserves are particularly attractive because we don’t have an extraction tax – a point suspiciously missing from Hopkins’ analysis. Reserves determine stock price and impact speculative investment returns. The push for selling Monterey Shale is about long term control of reserves – it’s about the ICE futures market and price manipulation. Monterey Shale should remain in the commons – owned by all Californians – and should not be sold away to these oil companies for next to nothing. Lastly, universities like USC should reject their current “short-sighted” business model that includes selling their reputations to the highest bidder. USC should require all their public policy studies, especially their economic studies, to be independently peer-reviewed prior to release.

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