Remind me again why there’s fracking in California


By this point, we’re all pretty familiar with the touchstones of the debate over fracking for oil and natural gas. During the early days of this unconventional drilling practice, the best argument in favor of fracking did have something going for it: Natural gas is a much cleaner burning power source than the fuels that it typically replaces, especially coal. Crude oil isn’t very clean, but at least there are economic and even geopolitical benefits to not importing so much of it from the Persian Gulf.

But since then, the steady drip-drip-drip of scientific discovery has shown the downside of fracking, and the evidence keeps getting worse. Over time, these negative impacts — air pollution, tainted wells, even earthquakes — has outweighed the good. But here’s one thing that never made much sense from Day One: Fracking in California. The Golden State is the nation’s breadbasket for many key agricultural products, has major issues surrounding the supply of clean water, and lies atop a major fault line. Yet fracking has exploded in the Far West in recent years.

Here’s a couple of stories that will have you questioning why California allows fracking. The first one relates to some highly dubious water-use practices that could have some real consequence for the food chain:

Here in California’s thirsty farm belt, where pumpjacks nod amid neat rows of crops, it’s a proposition that seems to make sense: using treated oil field wastewater to irrigate crops.

Oil giant Chevron recycles 21 million gallons of that water each day and sells it to farmers who use it on about 45,000 acres of crops, about 10% of Kern County’s farmland.

State and local officials praise the 2-decade-old program as a national model for coping with the region’s water shortages. As California’s four-year drought lingers and authorities scramble to conserve every drop, agricultural officials have said that more companies are seeking permits to begin similar programs. The heightened interest in recycling oil field wastewater has raised concern over the adequacy of safety measures in place to prevent contamination from toxic oil production chemicals.

Until now, government authorities have only required limited testing of recycled irrigation water, checking for naturally occurring toxins such as salts and arsenic, using decades-old monitoring standards. They haven’t screened for the range of chemicals used in modern oil production.

No one knows whether nuts, citrus or other crops grown with the recycled oil field water have been contaminated. Farmers may test crops for pests or disease, but they don’t check for water-borne chemicals. Instead, they rely on oversight by state and local water authorities. But experts say that testing of both the water and the produce should be expanded.

Some of the facts in this L.A. Times investigation are even more alarming than the rather understated tone of the piece. The article notes that when an outside group was allowed to test some of the wastewater supplied by Chevron, it found toxic chemicals such as acetone and methylene chloride, as well as crude oil. Just what you’d want on your head of lettuce!

But then I’ve never understood why fracking is allowed in California in such close proximity to its major earthquake zones. After all, scientists have now linked fracking to a string of earthquakes — especially in Oklahoma but some other states as well — and while the fault lines in California tend to be deeper, it still seems like an enormous risk. This weekend, there was a 3.9-magnitude earthquake near the largest oil field in the Los Angeles area:

Some neighbors in the hills near the drilling site complain of cracked foundations and leaning structures, blaming recent activity at the field run by Plains Exploration & Production (PXP).

The company admits to fracking-related practices in the last decade, but under state law it doesn’t have to reveal its contemporary techniques. The California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has permitted fracking on the property.

To answer the question, Did fracking cause last night’s earthquake, it seems unlikely. But it’s possible.

Large-scale fracking in such a fragile environment as California is absurd. I realize it’s hard to ban fracking — as New York, the most populous state on the East Coast, has done — but the practice should be restricted and highly regulated, at the least. No one in America should have to wonder whether their produce has been treated with fracking wastewater.

Read the L.A. Times investigation into the use of treated water from fracking in California farming:

Check out the L.A. Weekly story about this weekend’s earthquake and fracking in Baldwin Hills:

To read more about the environmental hazards of fracking, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved


  • I do not understand how we continue to allow the amoral oil/chemical companies to poison our food, water and earth just because they are blindly greedy. Have we really been dumbed down so low that there is no critical thinking ability left?

    Of course it is stupid to frack in California.

  • I do not understand how we continue to allow the amoral oil/chemical companies to poison our food, water and earth just because they are blindly greedy. Have we really been dumbed down so low that there is no critical thinking ability left? Are people who make decisions and work for these Corporations really so callous or incapable of seeing what they are doing to their own environment and that of their own children.

    Of course it is stupid to frack in California.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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