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California Fracking Impact Seen Manageable; Environmentalists Skeptical

Various oil/natural gas well stimulation techniques applied in California can be managed with additional rules and oversight, according to two separate reports released by county and state officials.

As an outgrowth of the state's new well stimulation rules (SB 4), which took effect this month (see Shale DailyJuly 2), California water regulators last Tuesday established new groundwater monitoring and testing requirements for operators before, during and after applying well stimulation.

Then on Thursday another SB 4-mandated action was completed when a statewide 858-page peer-reviewed scientific assessment of stimulation techniques, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), was released. It concluded that about 20% of the state's oil/gas production involved fracking over the last decade, and most of that was performed in relatively shallow, vertical wells concentrated in Kern County.

Generally, industry groups viewed the report as an important milestone of third-party verification that fracking has done no harm and can be used safely. However, environmental groups stressed the report's references to unknown risks, and the need for more study and safer practices.

The author of SB 4, state Sen. Fran Pavley, said as a result of the latest report on Monday she will propose legislation to establish an approved list of chemicals for use in fracking and a ban on the disposal of drilling waste in unlined pits.

As part of seven broad recommendations, state water and oil/gas regulatory agencies will be holding public hearings and pursuing rulemakings that all attempt to make safer some of the practices now being regulated under SB 4, with a particular focus on the chemicals used in fracking.

"We will look at appropriate paths forward and take action on these recommendations," said Steven Bohlen, the state oil/gas supervisor in the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), adding that other state agencies also will be involved, such as state toxic experts regarding fracking chemicals. "There will be an abundance of activity once we have had a chance to study and understand the details of the report of their nuances.

"Eventually, there could be a range of actions taken by state agencies," Bohlen said.

Jane Long, the co-lead for the scientific report, said the researchers found that there is not much data that show well stimulation has resulted in human health problems or groundwater contamination, but "we found practices that we don't think are inherently safe that should be examined and made safer." Bohlen and other officials assured that these will be addressed.

Separately, in response to an application in 2013 from the state's three major oil/gas industry associations, including the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Kern County, within whose border 85% of the state's oil production takes place, on Wednesday released a draft environmental assessment that when finalized promises to streamline the oil/gas permitting process in the county, but also add new requirements and accompanying added costs for the industry.

With both the state and county documents, WSPA is taking a cautious, but positive stance.

"The draft environmental impact report (DEIR) will protect county residents and enhance California's regulations and guidelines on oil/gas operations," said WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd. Also in commenting on the SB 4 rules taking effect July 1, Reheis-Boyd said she liked the state regulators' confirmation "that they will work very closely with Kern County and other local lead agencies with the goal of achieving consensus on the mitigation measures that are appropriate to specific projects."

WSPA also acknowledged the new water rules as somewhat "first-of-a-kind," and new regulations that will significantly impact the industry. California Water Resources Control Board and WSPA officials both noted that the board and industry group staff members worked together to address some industry concerns. However, WSPA reportedly did not get all the changes it would have liked, such as a limit on the number of wells to be included in the monitoring.

The new director of California's Department of Conservation (DOC), David Bunn, stressed that the final volumes of the scientific report -- the first volume was released July 1 -- were an independent look at well stimulation in the state by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). It was called for in SB 4 (see Shale DailySept. 23, 2013).

This work did a comprehensive review of potential impacts and put together four case studies -- in the Los Angeles Basin, another offshore, and one in both the Monterey Formation and the San Joaquin Basin. Among its recommendations are that the state and industry need to "prepare for potential future changes in fracking and acid stimulation practices in California," although it also concluded "near-term expanded production in the Monterey Formation seems unlikely."

Reheis-Boyd said the CCST report "will undoubtedly be a major source of information and topic of discussion as we continue to implement the extensive new regulations embodied in SB 4, and its science-based findings "stand in sharp contrast to much of the inflammatory and inaccurate commentary offered by anti-oil organizations about hydraulic fracturing and oil production in California.

"While there is much still to absorb in the report, the overarching conclusion is that no science-based evidence was identified that hydraulic fracturing in California has harmed the environment in any significant way."

A scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Briana Mordick, said the CCST report "found numerous threats to drinking water, public health and the environment from oil and gas development in California." She concluded that since the scientific assessment comes after the new SB 4 regulations and accompanying environmental assessment, they do not embody the concerns raised now.

“It’s critical that we use these new scientific findings and recommendations to guide the policies for how we move forward,” she said. “Policies must be put in place to halt hazardous practices – including the continued use of unlined percolation pits, injection into usable groundwater resources, unrestricted use of dangerous chemicals, and the close proximity of production sites to communities."

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