Screen grab of Shafter site from YouTube video (image: "Crapin Deair")
A YouTube video has led to what the Fresno Bee called the first state action taken against an oil company for the use of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. That could mean the unregulated, decades-old process of injecting high-pressure water, loaded with sand and toxic chemicals, into an oil well is as safe as the industry professes and does not need more government oversight.
Or it might not.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board levied a $60,000 penalty on Vintage Production California, LLC, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, for discharging the suspect, high-saline fracking fluids into an unlined pit near the city of Shafter in Kern County. Investigators said the discharge, over the 12-day period it knew of, posed a threat to nearby groundwater and the company had failed to get a permit to do it.
The small fine is the maximum allowed by state law. The settlement (pdf) followed disclosure of the company’s practice by someone who posted a video to YouTube in October 2012.
The board expressed its suspicion that his was not an isolated experience. “We are concerned that similar discharges may have occurred elsewhere throughout the Central Valley.” As part of the agreement, Vintage said it would stop doing it, if it is doing it, in agricultural areas.
Although fracking has been around for a long time, new technology and the lure of potentially billions of barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale have ignited a surge of fracking onshore and off. Ensuing publicity prodded reluctant California lawmakers to enact the first piece of fracking regulatory legislation in the state, Senate Bill 4.
The bill allows fracking to continue unabated until 2015 while regulations are drafted. A mandated statewide environmental impact report on the practice isn’t due until July 2015. And while the law does require frackers to reveal what toxic materials they are injecting into the ground, they can keep secret details on the mix of the toxic brew. Critics find public notification provisions to be ineffectively weak.
The oil and gas industry spoke approvingly of the bill after it passed, although they had argued it was unnecessary. Industry lobbyist Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), blogged earlier in the year, “An honest appraisal of the science and common sense around hydraulic fracturing leads to a conclusion the technology we’ve used without harm in California for 60 plus years is safe and its benefits a blessing.”