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Monday, Apr 16 2012 09:27 AM

Fracking data flows from Kern oil fields

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Pamela Woodruff can't be sure, but she suspects the loud, sustained noise coming from an oil operation near her southwest Bakersfield home earlier this year means someone has been fracking in her neighborhood.

Admittedly, Woodruff wouldn't know how to spot the controversial technique that, here and across the country, pumps water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to free up oil deposits. But she has heard stories about fracking, and they worry her.

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A CLOSER LOOK BY SACRAMENTO

State oil regulators are considering becoming more closely involved in overseeing fracking.

At a state budget hearing last month, the director of the state Department of Conservation, Mark Nechodom, said he wants to commission a scientific study of the practice. He also laid out plans to conduct listening sessions around the state to hear concerns about fracking.

DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale stated in an email Friday that these efforts would gauge the need for changing regulations already on the books.

"For now, the Division's focus is on gathering as much information about the use of hydraulic fracturing in California as possible to ensure any such regulations respond to both the public's concern and the risk associated from fracking to public health safety and the environment," he wrote.

The moves follow accusations by environmentalists that DOGGR has turned a blind eye to fracking in California even as the practice has become increasingly common.

Sacramento has no rules specific to fracking. It also maintains no easily searchable records of the practice.

Under questioning by state lawmakers last year, former DOGGR chief Elena Miller acknowledged the agency has no rules about fracking, even as she confirmed its authority over the practice.

Since her written statements became widely distributed, the division has emphasized that it nevertheless maintains a degree of oversight. It notes that agency engineers approve or deny drilling permits, including frack well applications, according to how well their design would confine injected fluids to the intended geologic zones.

Among those calling for closer oversight by Sacramento is the Oakland-based Environmental Working Group, which in February issued a critique of DOGGR's hands-off approach to fracking, titled "California Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking."

The group has urged greater disclosure as a step in the right direction. Its California director of governmental affairs, Bill Allayaud, said residents should not have to go through individual well records to find out whether companies have been cleared to frack in their neighborhood.

"I think that's unacceptable to the state of California that members of the public ... cannot access that information regularly," he said.

A FRACKING PRIMER

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking," was pioneered in the late 1940s as a way to get petroleum out of underground rock formations, mostly shale. Together with directional drilling, increased use of the technique has led to a domestic oil and natural gas boom. At the same time, concerns have been raised about its potential to pollute sources of drinking water.

How it works

Fracking injects sand, small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals and large volumes of water underground at pressures high enough to break up rock containing otherwise inaccessible oil deposits.

The chemicals keep the ruptures open and free of bacteria. Sometimes the fluid mixture is reused on other wells; other times it is injected underground as wastewater.

Why the concern

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, responding to concerns voiced by environmentalists and people who live near fracking wells, has undertaken a nationwide study of the practice.

The agency is looking into claims that fracking chemicals and petroleum have seeped into underground water sources, either because of faulty well construction or because ruptures created during the fracking process may have allowed toxins to migrate into water tables.

The EPA is also examining the possibility that fracking wastewater injected underground in Ohio has caused seismic activity there. The executive director of California's Seismic Safety Commission, Richard McCarthy, said the group has not looked into whether fracking could cause earthquakes in California, but it is considering inviting a speaker to address the issue this summer.

Another worry associated with the practice is that much water, including drinking water, is sometimes wasted in the process instead of being reused.

Industry perspective

California's oil industry maintains that the state's unique geology makes comparisons to fracking elsewhere irrelevant.

Industry representatives say the state's underground rock formations are much younger than those in the Midwest and East Coast, and so layers of underground clay here are better able to contain any chemicals or petroleum that might escape their intended zone and seep into water tables.

They also contend that in areas such as western Kern County where oil is found at relatively shallow levels, fracking presents no real danger because underground water sources there are so salty as to be undrinkable.

Only in Kern County

While many fracking wells here are of conventional design, local oil producers have pioneered an approach called cyclic steaming, also known as "steam fracking." This approach is seldom if ever used domestically outside Kern.

Unlike the more common well stimulation practice called steam flooding, cyclic steaming injects steam at high pressure specifically to break up relatively shallow, diatomaceous soil in the Taft area. State regulators began scrutinizing the practice, and have shut down production in some areas, in the aftermath of a Chevron manager's sinkhole death at the prolific Midway-Sunset oil field last summer.

"I just really wonder what is going on there," she said.

So do a lot of Californians. And they're likely to find out.

As fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, becomes more common in California and especially Kern County, state lawmakers, regulators and environmentalists are pushing for greater transparency regarding the practice.

Already some oil producers are responding by voluntarily posting information about their fracking operations to an online national database, fracfocus.org.

New detail

The result is an easily accessible public repository that reveals local fracking activity in unprecedented detail. Although it is unclear how complete the database is, and its records go back no further than last year, the website shows what chemicals and how much water have been injected where and at what depths at 78 California frack wells, all but five of them in Kern County.

For instance, FracFocus pinpoints a cluster of 58 wells fracked last year between Lost Hills and McKittrick by XTO Energy/ExxonMobil. Many of these frack jobs pumped several hundred thousand gallons of water into wells about 3,000 feet deep.

Another cluster of 12 wells in the Wasco-Shafter area was fracked last year by Occidental Petroleum Corp. These generally used greater volumes of water than the McKittrick wells -- in one case, more than 1.5 million gallons, or close to 5 acre feet of water -- at depths of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet, according to data Oxy posted to the website.

Calls for more

Two bills pending in the state Legislature would build on this trove by requiring still more public information about fracking activity. One would make oil companies turn over the same kind of data available at FracFocus, as well as information on where the fracking water came from and what was done with it afterward. The other bill would force companies to notify nearby property owners before fracking.

In the meantime, State Oil and Gas Supervisor Tim Kustic, head of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, sent out a notice March 28 urging oil companies to post information to FracFocus on a strictly voluntary basis.

"In the absence of requirements that operators report when, where and how they conduct hydraulic fracturing operations," DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale wrote in an email Friday, "the Division is asking that operators volunteer some of that information."

A sensitive issue

Fracking has been useful to the domestic energy industry because of its proven potential to unlock vast oil and natural gas reservoirs in places like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania. There the practice has received heavy scrutiny and no small amount of criticism because of claims that it could threaten drinking water and even trigger seismic activity.

There are indications that fracking activity in the state will only increase. Oxy and other local operators are gearing up to tap the Monterey Shale, a huge reservoir beneath Kern and other parts of Central California. People in the industry say producing oil there will require extensive fracking.

Willing to comply

Industry representatives say they would like to see disclosure rules become law, if only to relieve people's safety concerns.

The California Independent Petroleum Association is encouraging its members to comply with DOGGR's request for information.

"We feel disclosing where, when and how the process is being used will only bolster our case that this is a common and safe practice in California," said the association's chief executive, Rock Zierman.

Venoco Inc., a Denver-based oil producer operating in Kern, intends to send fracking records to FracFocus but hasn't done so yet, said Mike Edwards, the company's vice president of corporate and investor relations.

"I think since the order or the notice came out just last month, it's more of a yeah, in concept it'd be something we're supportive of," he said. "As far as the implementation time, I don't know what it's going to take for us to start implementing it."

A spokeswoman for one of Kern County's larger oil producers, Aera Energy LLC, said the company has agreed to begin reporting to FracFocus starting in May. But Aera's support for the initiative is conditional, she added.

"We support reasonable disclosure of completed hydraulic fracturing operations where uniform rules and protocols are in place to ensure that competing companies are disclosing this information in the same manner," spokeswoman Susan Hersberger wrote in an email.

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