Fears abound as California faces the reality that, besides all its other natural wonders, it sits atop an Arabian-sized oil and natural gas bonanza that can only be exploited via the process of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
One fear is that when oil drillers insert the mix of water, sand, and chemicals used to force raw petroleum products out of rock formations, they will pollute drinking water supplies and water wells used by farmers atop the Monterey Shale formation. This rich formation, containing an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil, stretches from Monterey and San Benito counties south along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley, roughly parallel to the Interstate 5 freeway.
So far, there is no evidence in California to back the water pollution worries, although questions have been raised near fracking operations in Wyoming.
Another fear is that that Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for two “peripheral tunnels” to help preserve the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers while bringing more water south and aiding endangered species is a Trojan horse. The real purpose, some say, is not to slake the thirst of farmers or Southern and Central California cities, but to provide massive amounts of water for use in fracking.
Then there’s the fear that massive new oil and gas supplies emanating from California might destabilize the world’s economic balance of power, bringing oil prices down as it makes the United States the world’s largest oil producer by 2017. This could wreck economies from the Arab world to Russia and South America, where oil revenues now prop up regimes run by figures like Vladimir Putin and the heirs of Hugo Chavez. If oil prices dropped precipitately, this theory goes, the governing systems of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and many other places could be upset and no one knows what forces might try to bring them down.
None of these fears is the least bit irrational, even if the oil industry steadfastly discounts them and fracking has gone on for years in semi-depleted oil fields here, as well as in states as varied as Virginia and North Dakota. So far, the only fear that has found its way into California courts is the possibility of environmental and water table damage from fracking fluids.
Exploratory drilling in Monterey County was stopped in March when a magistrate judge in San Jose ruled the federal Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act by proceeding without in-depth environmental studies covering effects on everything from water tables to livestock and earthquakes.
Meanwhile, moves to regulate fracking abound in the Legislature, where the most sensible might be one by Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of Scotts Valley, which would require companies to disclose the source and amounts of water they use in fracking, as well as getting approval from regional Water Quality Control Boards before disposing of used chemical/water mixes.
Other bills moving through the Legislature aim to halt the entire process up to five years for extensive environmental studies.
But the oil industry strongly opposes any kind of moratorium. “The industry supports a regulatory structure,” a Western States Petroleum Assn. lobbyist told a reporter. “It’s in our best interests that we have disclosure, transparency. But not a moratorium.”
The enormous potential economic impact of all this petroleum might end up overwhelming all environmental concerns. The California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. calls the Monterey Shale a “game changer” that could provide more than 500,000 new jobs in some of the more depressed parts of the state and nation, with billions of dollars in new tax revenues coming to state, local and federal governments.
That means Congress, dollar signs in its eyes and driven by companies that already seek to export fracked natural gas in a liquefied form, might pass legislation to supersede any rules state lawmakers could impose.
The trick here, then, is to exploit the bonanza, but do it in a way that protects existing farms, industry and water supplies. Oil wells and healthy people have coexisted for almost a century in places like Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Why not also in the Coast Range and the Central Valley?
Which means California should proceed with this, but only if it can do it well and safely.