San Francisco Chronicle, August 3, 2013
The U.S. decision was applauded by environmentalists, who believe fracking is turning farmland into oil fields.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported Friday that it will launch California's first statewide study of fracking and its possible hazards, a key goal of environmentalists opposed to the drilling practice.
The bureau, which manages nearly 15 percent of all land in the state, will ask the California Council on Science and Technology to examine the current use in California of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, and other oil-production techniques, including horizontal drilling.
The council, a panel that advises the governor and state Legislature on technical issues, will also look at the threat those practices could pose to California's air and water, as well as the potential for triggering earthquakes.
At the same time, the bureau will consider adding new requirements to its oil-drilling leases in a part of the state that sits atop the Monterey Shale, a vast geologic formation believed to hold 15 billion barrels of crude. Oil companies have turned to fracking to unlock the formation's huge reserves.
Ruling inspires decision
The bureau initially resisted studying fracking's environmental effects in California. But in April, a federal magistrate judge ruled that it broke the law when it leased land for fracking in Monterey and Fresno counties without first examining the risks.
"I think the bureau saw the writing on the wall and realized that they had to either do this on their own or the court would force them to do this," said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. His group, along with the Sierra Club, sued the bureau over the drilling leases.
"We want the federal government to protect our land, air and water, rather than sacrifice these resources to fossil fuel interests," Cummings said. "Right now, BLM is driving us over the cliff without realizing that the cliff is there. This will ensure that they at least know the cliff is there."
As the use of fracking spreads in California, pressure has increased in Sacramento to regulate the practice or ban it outright.
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a pressurized blend of water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations, cracking the rock and freeing the oil or natural gas trapped inside. Fracking has unleashed a boom in oil and gas production in such states as North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Critics say it also has contaminated water supplies, polluted the air and turned farmlands into oil fields. The oil industry insists that done properly, fracking poses no threat to the environment. Fracking advocates note that versions of the process have been used for decades, including in California.
A bill by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), would subject fracking to a sweeping study of its risks. In contrast, the study announced Friday by the Bureau of Land Management will probably not be as deep. The council will survey existing data rather than conduct original research, said bureau spokesman David Christy.
"That's what we've asked for - review the existing information and identify any data gaps," he said. The study could be finished next year.
That information will, in turn, help the bureau decide whether it needs to impose new conditions on drilling leases in the region administered by its Hollister field office. The office oversees 215,000 acres of public land available for leasing along the Central Coast, as well as an additional 588,000 acres for which private parties own the surface while the federal government controls the mineral rights.
The public can participate
The bureau will seek public input on the issues raised by fracking and other drilling techniques that could be used in the area. Technical questions raised by the public, such as the effects on groundwater or air quality, will be addressed by the council's research, Christy said.
The bureau's moves will have limited impact in the state.
The vast majority of fracking in California takes place on private - not public - lands. Drilling activity on those properties is regulated by a state agency - the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources - which is developing its own regulations for fracking.
But environmentalists still welcome the bureau's study, even if they'd rather see fracking stopped altogether.
"This is just a first step to try to understand how destructive this fracking process in the Monterey Shale can be to our air and water," said Kathryn Phillips, California director for the Sierra Club.
"One of the key problems in California is no one's looked at this stuff. What's the impact?"
© 2013 Hearst Communications, Inc.
This article originally appeared here.
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