Catalyst Fall 2013

Confronting Fracking

 

The technology is fueling an energy expansion—but at what risk? UCS is helping communities make informed decisions.

by Seth Shulman

For Irma Muñoz, who lives near the Inglewood Oil Field in West Los Angeles, there is nothing theoretical or abstract about the oil and gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”). Culver City, near Muñoz’s home, is the most populous U.S. municipality to directly confront this complex and polarizing issue. Like many other California communities, Culver City sits atop the vast Monterey Shale formation, now thought to contain an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil—the world’s largest reserve of deep shale oil.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling wells into these deep formations and injecting, under high pressure, millions of gallons of water, along with chemicals and sand, to break open fissures in the rock and release oil and natural gas. Recent technological advances have made it easier to reach previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves, leading to a rapid expansion in domestic production that has already changed the global energy market for fossil fuels.

Thanks to formations like the Monterey Shale, the International Energy Agency now predicts that the United States could be the world’s largest oil producer by 2020. The dizzying pace at which fracking is proceeding—often in locales wholly inexperienced with oil and gas drilling—has outpaced both the scientific information available on the topic and federal, state, and local governments’ regulatory responses, leaving residents like Muñoz with serious concerns about the consequences for their communities.

“Oil drilling is one thing. But fracking brings out a totally different level of anxiety,” Muñoz says. “It is hard to believe what the oil companies say, and few in the community have any trust in them.”

All the Stakeholders under One Roof

Muñoz, who leads an environmental group in Los Angeles called Mujeres de la Tierra (Women of the Earth), was invited by the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS to attend an ambitious event in Los Angeles this past July to help communities grapple with the difficult technical and policy issues surrounding fracking and other unconventional oil and gas development. Muñoz says her community has badly needed more understandable information about the technology and its potential consequences, calling the Center’s efforts “cause for celebration and a great step forward.”

The event, a Lewis M. Branscomb Forum titled “Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking,” was held on the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in partnership with the university’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, the Evan Frankel Environmental Law & Policy Program at the UCLA School of Law, and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Nearly 75 scientific and regulatory experts, industry representatives, and politicians and activists from around the country took part in two days of workshops designed to shed light on what we know and don’t know about the science on unconventional oil and gas development, what regulations and policies are needed and which have proven effective thus far, and how to make scientific information on fracking more accessible and useful for communities dealing with the issue.

The program culminated in a public event attended by more than 300 in person and 1,200 more via live webcast. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, told the audience, “We’re committed to holding events like these . . . because we know that science plays a critical role in our ability to make good decisions.”

As Catalyst went to press, the Center was preparing to publish a report outlining the key barriers faced by the public when attempting to access scientific and regulatory information related to hydraulic fracturing. We have also produced a fracking “toolkit” designed to help communities ask critical questions before making decisions about unconventional oil and gas development (see the sidebar for some examples). These fracking-related publications and more information about the forum—including a summary report and a recording of the public event—are available at www.ucsusa.org/frackingforum.

What We Should Be Doing Now

To date, federal legislation has exempted hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional oil and gas development from key provisions of national statutes, undermining our ability to apply the best science in reducing health, safety, and environmental risks. Loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Toxics Release Inventory (part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) need to be closed, and existing regulations need to be more fully enforced.

Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations can be highly saline and often toxic or radioactive. In many plances, this water is stored at well sites in lines pits, suxh as this one in Arkansas. Photo: Bill Cunningham, USGS

Equally important is the issue of transparency. Public safety should take priority over trade secrets, which is the case for most industries regulated under the Toxic Release Inventory. But loopholes have allowed fracking operations to withhold the composition of their fracking fluids by claiming that information is proprietary. UCS maintains that the public has a right to know about chemicals being pumped into public lands, the oversight and monitoring of these activities, and their implications for public health and well-being. Thus, the chemical composition, volume, and concentration of all fracking fluids—even those considered proprietary—should be disclosed and made available online before drilling can begin.

Finally, experts participating in the forum stressed the need for baseline studies of water and air quality before drilling begins, and regular monitoring during and after fracking. This would safeguard communities not only by empowering citizens to hold those responsible for any water or air pollution accountable, but also by helping scientists study the effects of hydraulic fracturing so we can develop better health and safety standards for unconventional oil and gas development.

Seth Shulman is senior staff writer at UCS.

10 Questions about Fracking and Water

The prospect of water contamination is a top concern for communities dealing with hydraulic fracturing. Here is what you should ask town officials and drilling companies about these risks.

 

Where are my drinking water and other water resources located in relation to oil and gas wells and reservoirs?

  1. Where could spills or contamination occur in my community?

  2. How might they affect my drinking water?

  3. How much water will a typical well in my region use, and where will it come from?

  4. Are our planners and local decision makers undertaking a trade-off analysis to see how fracking operations may affect water availability and competing demand for (and use of) this resource?

  5. How and where would drilling companies dispose of their wastewater, chemicals, or other potentially harmful materials?

  6. Is my public water treatment facility accepting fracking wastewater?

  7. Is it able to adequately treat the volume and quality of this wastewater?

  8. How could potential changes in drinking water quality or quantity affect the health of my community, especially among those most vulnerable (including children or those with illnesses)?

  9. What safeguards and emergency preparedness measures are in place to deal with potential spills or contamination?

 

Get more information, practical advice, and resources for decision making on fracking.