California Finally Counts Them and Finds Half of New Oil Wells Are Fracked

Thursday, January 15, 2015

It’s never too late to learn how prevalent a polluting technology is when you’re starting a regulatory process to assess and control its worst applications.

A year after California passed Senate Bill 4, regulating oil and gas well-stimulation techniques like hydraulic fracturing for the first time, the state has a picture of the fracking landscape.  A report (pdf) commissioned by the 2013 law found that around half of new wells drilled in the last decade were fracked.

Fracking was found in 96 of California’s 500 oil fields, producing around one-fifth of the state’s oil. But its popularity has risen. Between 125 and 175 new wells out of 300 drilled each month, on average, are fracked. Almost all the fracked wells are in four Kern County oil fields sitting atop the Monterey Shale.

The report, from the California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said acid stimulation is used infrequently, about 10% as often as fracking, and probably will never amount to much in California because of the geography.

The state is trying to get a handle on the decades-old drilling techniques, which have been updated in the 21st century to include toxic chemicals, high volumes of pressurized water, sand and hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid. Drillers are reanimating old, abandoned wells and tapping sites once thought inaccessible.

Critics say fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sink holes. The industry has consistently argued that there is no proof that fracking is a danger, and existing industry standards provide adequate safety for people and the environment.

Since the state had no idea who was fracking where under what conditions, it seemed prudent to gather some information, if not before addressing these issues, at least during the process.

Little fracking occurs offshore. Ninety percent of it that does is on four man-made islands—named after astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee, and Theodore Freeman, who perished in Apollo 1—in the Wilmington Field off the coast of Los Angeles

The report dismissed a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) study released last May which said the Monterey Shale in Central California held just a small fraction of the 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil being touted by fracking oil drillers. It said the verdict is out on where future fracking might be applied.

The report is Volume I of three studies. This one “provides the factual basis describing well stimulation technologies, how and where operators deploy these technologies for oil and gas production in California, and where they might enable production in the future.”

During the year taken to compile the report, drillers continued to prep the environment for Volume II, which studies how the “stimulation affects water, the atmosphere, seismic activity, wildlife and vegetation, traffic, light and noise levels; it will also explore human health hazards, and identify data gaps and alternative practices.”

Volume III, scheduled to appear with Volume II in July, will study environmental risks to specific geographical areas using case studies.

A number of environmentalists and other critics have called for a moratorium on fracking while the studies are conducted and digested.

–Ken Broder     


To Learn More:

California Using Hydraulic Fracturing in Up to Half of New Wells: State Study (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

20% of California’s Oil, Natural Gas Comes from Fracking (by David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle)

State Quickly OKs Fracking Regulations; Environmental Studies Still TK (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

An Independent Scienti­fic Assessment of Well Stimulation in California (California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) (pdf)

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