If energy companies are allowed to tap potential huge Central California reserves of oil trapped in shale, they are going to have to prove that the controversial extraction process called fracking doesn’t destroy the environment.
At least that’s what U.S. District Judge Paul Grewal wrote in a decision made public Monday that barred drilling on 2,500 acres of land approved for oil and gas development by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2011 until an environmental impact report is completed.
“The potential risk for contamination from fracking, while unknown, is not so remote or speculative to be completely ignored,” Grewal wrote. It is the first time a federal agency has been told it had to analyze the environmental effect of fracking when considering lease agreements, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which brought the lawsuit heard by Grewal.
The two tracts in question are significantly smaller than the 17,847 acres of public land in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties that had their drilling rights auctioned off last December.
Fracking, also know as hydraulic fracturing in more polite company, has been around for decades, but is coming under increased scrutiny as California ponders tapping The Monterey Shale, a repository of oil that could top 15.3 billion barrels and may represent 60% of all shale oil in the country.
Although fracking has been around a long time, it has been largely unexamined. It is pretty much unregulated in California, while the energy industry fights rules that would force them to identify where they are fracking, give notice where they intend to frack and disclose what toxic chemicals they are pumping into the ground with millions of gallons of pressurized water.
Critics say fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sink holes. A 2011 report from the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the House of Representatives identified 29 known or suspected carcinogens used in fracking between 2005 and 2009.
Judge Grewal did not invalidate the leases and asked parties to the dispute to offer suggestions on a next step. The Bureau of Land Management had reasoned that environmental impact reports on fracking weren’t necessary because there was no certainty that it would be deployed there.
The Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is currently considering statewide fracking regulations, but a draft of its proposal was widely scorned by environmentalists―and hailed by the petroleum industry.
Legislation that promises more oversight than the DOGGR proposal was approved by the state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on Tuesday. The legislation, as well as the DOGGR regulations, requires drillers to report what chemicals they are using, but a major sticking point is that the industry can still keep that information hidden from the public by claiming it is a trade secret.