Active and spent oil well sites in the south of Monterey County, one of six counties in the state where fracking has occurred, according to a report.

Rarely has a single image from a documentary film sparked greater debate overnight: a Colorado homeowner turns on his faucet, and as soon as he puts a cigarette lighter to the tap water, it catches fire—the result of highly flammable methane seeping into the water supply from an oil drilling operation nearby. The drilling involves hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil and gas extraction process the potential medical and environmental perils of which are the subject of the Oscar-nominated film Gasland.

Fracking, as it is called, requires huge amounts of water, combined with sand and an undisclosed combination of chemicals, to be injected deep into a well; the goal is to cause new cracks in the subsurface geology, which allow trapped gas or oil reserves to rise to the surface. The process—and related methane and chemical seepage—have been blamed for everything from contaminated water and mystery illnesses to earthquakes. 

This last issue has raised special concerns in California, as it is emerging that fracking—despite repeated denials on the part of state officials charged with regulating oil and gas drilling—has been going on in the state for decades, completely unmonitored.

The Environmental Working Group recently issued an exhaustive report detailing the failure of the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to regulate or even track hydraulic fracturing in California. The report, California Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking, reveals that fracking has taken place in at least six California counties: Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Ventura. Hundreds of wells have been fracked throughout the state, some on land where the landowner didn’t even know it or didn’t authorize it, because while he may own the land, someone else owns the mineral rights to what may be found underground.

The petroleum industry defends chemical hydraulic fracturing as being safe. “There has never been a single instance of groundwater contamination from fracking for oil,” says Tupper Hulls, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association. 

Environmentalists dismiss such assertions. “How do they know there are no associated problems when no one has ever regulated or even monitored fracking operations in the state?” asks Leeann Brown of the Environmental Working Group. “We can't find what we don't look for. Other states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming have all experienced environmental problems as a result of this practice. California needs better monitoring and tracking before the industry can claim their work is not affecting our water, air, soil and communities' health.”


Watch The Water

The potential health hazards from fracking are well known to the townspeople of Pavillion, Wyo.  Soon after fracking operations began in the area, residents began noticing a bad taste and smell in their drinking water. Coincidentally, some began experiencing nausea, fatigue, respiratory problems and itching skin. Citizens complained to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and were repeatedly assured that there was no evidence of toxic chemicals in their drinking water supply. But problems persisted, and in 2009 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began taking samples from drinking water wells in the area. Last December the agency announced that some samples contained toxic compounds used in gas and oil production, including benzene. (One teaspoon of benzene, which is carcinogenic, can contaminate 260,000 gallons of water.) The EPA linked the contamination of the water directly to fracking.  Even as the EPA is now conducting a nationwide study of potential environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, the practice remains exempt from the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.

The disposal of leftover frack fluid can be as problematic as fracking itself.  State regulators in Ohio recently implicated the disposal of frack fluids—achieved by reinjecting the wastewater into the ground—as almost certainly being the cause of a dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio.

Many geologists were not surprised by the finding. “We have known since the 1960s that the injection of fluids into the sub surface (under high pressures) can induce small to moderate earthquakes,” says Dr. Jerry Weber, a local consulting engineering geologist and retired lecturer at UC–Santa Cruz. “This problem was clearly demonstrated when injection of toxic waste water from government facilities into deep isolated sandstones near Denver, Colo. started to generate small earthquakes.  

“Similarly, very large surface reservoirs, during filling, can also generate small to moderate earthquakes. The weight of the water alone can change the equilibrium creating the earthquakes. It really depends upon the nature of the geologic setting in which the reservoir is built.  The same is true for injecting fluids—like fracking fluids—into the earth. In some areas it will cause problems and in others it will not.”

Weber is concerned about another underappreciated problem with fracking in California.  “There are hundreds of thousands of wells throughout California that have been drilled and abandoned, some without being properly sealed,” he says.  “Many were dug before there were any regulations governing proper abandonment. It is possible that some of those old improperly sealed wells might serve as conduits from fracking sites to aquifers, causing methane or chemicals to seep into the aquifers.”


Full Disclosure

The debate over fracking has found its way into courts and legislatures around the country. Here in California, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have recently sued the Bureau of Land Management to halt its leasing of some 2,700 acres in Fresno and Monterey counties for oil and gas exploration. Hydraulic fracturing is expected to be part of the drilling activity.

The area in question in Monterey County is near the mineral-rich Hames Valley, home to the San Ardo oil fields. It’s ecologically sensitive and home to many endangered species of flora and fauna, according to Steve Craig, an olive farmer in Monterey County who sits on the Sierra Club’s Committee on Chemical Hydraulic Fracturing. Craig is also concerned about how fracking would impact the area’s water supply. “No one knows exactly what happens to the frack fluids and chemicals underground, or how they migrate, or how far,” he says.

Even if the process were completely safe, farmers, ranchers and vintners in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have expressed concerns about the sheer volume of water used in fracking—up to 1.5 million gallons of water for a single well.

State Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski (D–Fremont) has authored A.B. 591, a strong disclosure bill that would require gas and oil companies to disclose where they are fracking, what chemicals are used, how waste water will be disposed of and how much water their operation will require. All of the information would be posted on a public website. The bill has passed in the Assembly and is now in the Senate, where the industry’s concerns about revealing the specific composition of their particular fracking chemical cocktails remain a key issue.

Steve Craig believes that if the bill passes, oil companies, invoking trade secret concerns, will fight it all the way to the Supreme Court. “Until the oil and gas industry reveals details of the fracking process and all the chemicals used,” he says, “and until there is long-term study of nearby aquifers in areas that have been fracked intensively, we will not be able to answer the question ‘Can fracking be done safely?’ The oil companies are preventing us from even being able to ask the question.”