As the fourth largest oil producing state in the country, California must responsibly manage the massive waste stream generated by the oil and gas sector. This report examines the risks to California water and air quality associated with just one part of this waste stream: oil and gas wastewater disposal into open-air and unlined pits.
On Shaky Ground: Fracking, Acidizing, and Increased Earthquake Risk in California finds that millions of Californians live in areas threatened by oil industry-induced earthquakes. Academic research and government experts conclude that wastewater injection can reduce faults’ natural friction and trigger earthquakes.
Clean Water Action is working to protect California from the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), acidizing and other risky oil production activities. Across the country, communities are suffering from health and environmental impacts related to oil and gas production, including: contaminated drinking water and polluted air, degradation of local waterways, and decreased property values. In most states, fracking operations are designed to extract natural gas reserves. In California, it’s all about oil.
California has one of the largest shale oil plays in the nation- the Monterey Shale. It spans much of the Central Valley and Southern California. It lies below many of the sources of drinking water for Central Valley residents and contains oil that has historically been too difficult to extract. Despite the recent downgrade of recoverable oil from 15.4 billion barrels to 0.6 billion barrels, oil companies are still working to exploit this resource, and continue to drill and frack across the state.
Using new technologies, such as fracking, acidizing and other well stimulation techniques, oil companies such as Venoco, Occidental, and PXP aim to make California the biggest on-shore oil producing state in the nation. We need to ensure that these oil and gas recovery techniques do not pollute our water, degrade our air, or damage our communities. Clean Water Action is working to enact a moratorium on fracking in California until the state determines whether fracking and acidizing can be done without harming our communities and the environment.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a method of extracting oil or natural gas trapped inside shale or other rock formations. Oil and gas companies drill deep into the earth often through our underground sources of drinking and irrigation water. Then they inject high volumes of water mixed with chemicals and often sand at high pressure to fracture the rock around the well to release the oil or gas. Acidizing, another well stimulation process, involves the injection of hydrofluoric and/or hydrochloric acids to corrode the rock formation and allow for increase oil-flow.
Across the country there have been numerous environmental and community costs associated with fracking and other drilling, including contaminated waterways and groundwater, air pollution, and earthquakes potentially caused by the underground disposal of wastewater. Yet, despite these serious threats fracking is exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking has an especially high impact on water resources because most contaminated wastewater from fracking is removed from the water cycle.
The Central Valley, where the majority of fracking is taking place, is already under major pressure from contaminated drinking water sources.
Nitrate contamination, for example, from agriculture is a major threat to many communities’ drinking water sources. According to a recent UC Davis report, over 2 million Californians may not have access to a reliable source of safe drinking water, as groundwater contamination is a major problem throughout the state. Any increase in groundwater contamination is unacceptable and will only put more pressure on California’s shrinking water resources.
Wastewater from fracking operations in California is often disposed of into underground injection wells deep beneath the surface of the earth. These wells, know as Class II injection wells, are regulated under the US EPA Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program. They are often in close proximity to or pass through underground sources of water used for drinking and agriculture. While industry claims that underground injection of fracking wastewater is safe, the EPA has criticized California’s implementation of the UIC program and monitoring of Class II wells. In particular, the report criticizes the Division of Oil and Gas Resources (DOGGR) one size fits all risk assessment for protection of waterways.
In a seismically active region such as California, there is increased risk of well-casing failure and the possibility of wastewater transport through faults into aquifers. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that fluids injected deep into the earth can migrate over time, potentially entering underground sources of drinking water.
Since DOGGR does not require disclosure of wastewater disposal, the public does not know the fate of most fracking wastewater in California. Besides underground injection, drilling companies sometimes dispose of wastewater into open-air pits, where the dangerous chemicals can off-gas, creating air quality problems, or discharge into waterways, threatening drinking water sources and habitats. Under the Clean Water Act, any discharged water into waterways must be treated, however most water treatment plants are not equipped to handle the types and volume of wastewater from fracking. Without disclosure from frackers of wastewater disposal, the state does not know the extent to which these different methods are employed, and if it has lead to any problems, as detected in other states.
California’s Central Valley, home to 4 million Californians, has the highest level of particulate matter and ozone pollution in the United States, and the asthma rate is three times the national average, according to the American Lung Association. Deep shale drilling is known to release significant levels of methane gases and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that cause smog and lead to respiratory problems and cancer causing air toxics such as benzene and arsenic.
The oil and gas industry is the single largest producer of methane gas in the U.S., accountable for approximately 40% of all methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas, 20 times more potent than CO2. In addition to the emissions from drilling, large numbers of trucks are used to transport chemicals to each drill site and wastewater away from each drill site, causing significant increases in particulate and smog-forming pollutants. The air pollution and health problems that result from fracking is a cost that Central Valley residents cannot afford to pay.
California prides itself on being a leader in combatting climate change and promoting clean energy. Yet, allowing more drilling enabled by fracking and acidizing will only hurt our climate as more fossil fuels are extracted and burned.
Despite the grave dangers associated with fracking, there has been very little regulation of fracking and other oil and gas extraction methods in California. In fact, California lags behind many other states where fracking occurs in protecting local communities. As one of the largest oil and gas producing states, with approximately 60,000 oil and gas wells, California’s lack of regulation has put local communities at serious risk. In California,
Until these and numerous other concerns are addressed, fracking should not happen in California. Until an independent review has determined that fracking can cause no harm, there should be a moratorium.