Draft of fracking regulations released
San Francisco Chronicle | David Baker
December 19, 2012
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California would require oil companies engaged in the controversial practice of fracking to pressure-test their wells first, notify the state in advance and make sure they aren't working too close to a fault line under regulations proposed Tuesday.
But the draft regulations, issued by the California agency that oversees oil drilling, would not force companies to obtain a special permit for fracking. Nor would the regulations give people living near oil wells much warning that fracking was about to begin.
Environmentalists immediately attacked the proposals as too weak.
"It sets up California to be another, 'Frack, baby, frack' state," said Jennifer Krill, executive director of the Earthworks environmental group.
Tuesday's proposal marks the first time that California regulators have tried to set specific rules for fracking, more properly known as hydraulic fracturing. Until now the state has treated fracking - which uses a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to crack underground rocks - as just another oil production technique, subject to the same rules as any other.
While California officials haven't even kept statistics on the practice, its use in the state appears to be rising, with at least 598 wells fracked in the past two years, according to a nationwide website called FracFocus that collects data from oil companies. But no one has been able to say for certain.
The rules proposed Tuesday by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources would not force companies to obtain a specific permit for fracking. That pleases the oil industry, which sees fracking as key to expanding oil and natural gas production nationwide.
"What's encouraging is that, despite some of the more emotional arguments being made, the state of California recognizes that fracking is an important technology with tremendous potential for California," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association.
The proposed regulations could change, perhaps dramatically. Division officials emphasized Tuesday that the draft was simply that - a draft, the product of a series of seven public workshops that the division held this year with environmentalists, oil industry representatives and other parties. The process of hammering out final rules will probably take a year.
Under Tuesday's proposal, companies would be required to tell the division 10 days before fracking a well, with a second notification required 24 hours before work begins. The information - including the amount of water and pressure to be used - would be published on the division's website.
The advance notice would give the division time to send one of its field inspectors to monitor the work, officials said Tuesday. But with a field staff of about 70, the division probably won't have someone present every time a well is fracked.
"It'd be really difficult for us to say how many of those we'll be able to witness ourselves," said Jason Marshall, the division's chief deputy director. "But if we need additional staff, that's something we can discuss with the Legislature."
The information would appear on the division's website three days before fracking commenced. That irks environmentalists, who consider three days' notice insufficient.
Each well would be pressure-tested for at least 30 minutes to ensure that its cement casing won't crack during fracking. Cracked casings can allow the chemicals used in fracking to leach into groundwater.
Companies would not be allowed to frack close to existing wells or fault lines. If the subterranean cracks created by fracking touch a fault or well, the chemicals can migrate toward the surface and, again, threaten drinking water.
After fracking, companies would be required to publish a list of the chemicals they used, posting the list on the FracFocus website. But companies could still hide that information by claiming that the exact chemical mix is a trade secret.
That alarms fracking critics. They also worry that the proposal doesn't address concerns about fracking's impact on air quality and possible link to earthquakes. Recent research suggests that the wells used to dispose of water from fracking can trigger quakes, although the seismic risk from fracking itself appears to be low.
"In a state crisscrossed with fault lines, they need to pay more attention to this," said George Torgun, an attorney with the Earthjustice environmental law group, which recently sued the state over fracking.