Government officials, environmentalists and industry representatives carried the debate on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to California's south-central coast last Thursday in Santa Barbara County, and while there was no across-the-board agreement, local elected officials did voice surprise that fracking is a potential issue in their county where offshore oil/gas development has had a long-standing love-hate relationship with residents.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) hosted the meeting with a panel of representatives to tout her efforts in Congress to remove fracking's current exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act that dates back to 2005.

Capps told local news media that regulation's purpose in this case is to be what she called "a reflection of our commitment to health and environmental safety." She urged that the general public needs to keep focused on the question of whether fracking will threaten public health in some communities.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr said she didn't think anyone in the county felt that fracking would ever occur locally, but then last March two local ranchers discovered that fracking had taken place in a small community north of Santa Barbara -- Los Alamos -- by the increasingly active independent producer, Venoco Inc.

Since that time, the elected board of country supervisors has held two public meetings on fracking, and a third is scheduled for Sept. 20.

In the meantime, a proposed state law to require producers to divulge the chemicals used in fracking (AB 591) looks like it is stymied at the end of California's current legislative session and will become a two-year bill to be taken up next year (see Shale Daily, Sept. 2). In addition, California's long-sleepy Monterey Shale play has gotten a lot of speculative ink lately from Venoco's CEO, Chesapeake Energy's supposed increased interest in the basin, and oil/gas investment analysts.

This makes the issue of fracking all the more alive for environmental and community interests that are lined up against the practice based on allegedly misinformed and erroneous reporting from some of the active shale plays, such as Marcellus, around the nation.

At the Santa Barbara meeting an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, Brian Segee, raised questions about what he called "uncertain types of toxic chemicals" and large amounts of fresh water being put in the ground. Segee cited Venoco's alleged use of 100,000 gallons of water in each of its wells at Los Alamos.

In contrast, Tupper Hull, the communications vice president for the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), cited robust regulation and "breathtaking improvements" in fracking technology as reasons why the general public has nothing to fear from hydraulic fracturing.

At a separate energy industry conference last month, Venoco CEO Timothy Marquez touted the stepped up drilling activity in California, particularly in the Monterey Shale, noting that his small independent company plans to drill 75 wells next year, and it already has 60 permits from state authorities in hand. "We haven't had any problems with permitting in the state," he said.

Ironically, most of the drilling planned will be traditional vertical wells that will not involve fracking, he told the industry audience. "Our economics are great; these are cheap vertical wells," Marquez said.