Fracking: While It’s Dangerous, There’s Money To Be Made, But Not By People Asked To Live With It

By John Grula

There is so much that is not understood about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that, in view of the various dangers, a moratorium is needed – but then some people (corporations) are making quite good profits from the activity and so will fight to prevent that from happening.

Fracking is a technique that has been around for some 50 years, but itwas rarely used until just the last five years or so. Therefore, contrary to oil company reassurances, we really don’t have much experience with fracking and don’t understand all the dangers it presents.

In recent years, the number of fracked wells and the amount of oil and gas extracted by fracking has exploded. While this has resulted in increased domestic oil and gas production, and substantially cheaper natural gas, the method is very controversial because of an array of hazards it presents to the health of people and the environment.

Fracking an oil or gas well involves injecting millions of gallons of water along with sand and various chemicals into rock formations at very high pressure. It results in breakage of the rock formations and keeps the rock open so oil and gas can be raised to the surface. One of the concerns about fracking that has arisen during California’s current drought is the large amounts of water consumed and contaminated by fracking. Are there more important uses for this water other than extracting yet more oil and gas? Many Californians would answer “yes.”

The list of hazards associated with fracking is rather lengthy: surface water contamination, soil contamination, wastewater disposal, air pollution, water supply threats, damage to natural habitats, and nuisances (noise, traffic, odors). Earthquakes are also cited as a potential threat that may result from fracking.   However, earthquakes can be caused not so much by fracking itself, but by the common practice of re-injecting deep underground the highly polluted water created by fracking. Geologists say, on the basis of preliminary studies, that we need to take this threat seriously.

For instance there is a lot fracking currently taking place in the Long Beach area. It is best then to remember that on March 10, 1933, the magnitude 6.4 Long Beach Earthquake took place. It killed 120 people and caused an estimated $50 million in property damage. This earthquake occurred along the Newport-Inglewood Fault, a fault which is still active and thought to be capable of causing another earthquake with a magnitude as large as 7.4. Such a quake would be catastrophic for the Los Angeles area.

How much do we know about whether or not there are re-injection wells used for Long Beach-area fracking waste water that are located near the Newport-Inglewood Fault? Not much. But this case illustrates the kind of danger we might be placing ourselves in because of fracking. If there is even a small chance that deep-earth re-injection of fracking waste water could trigger an earthquake along the Newport-Inglewood Fault (or the San Andreas Fault, as far as that goes), then we shouldn’t be taking that chance. Let’s place a moratorium (temporary delay) on fracking until we know much more about the science and the hazards.

Why are we in such a hurry to frack our state when we clearly don’t know enough about all of the potential dangers? Let’s take a time-out and gain a much better understanding of fracking before we foolishly plunge ahead into possible disaster.

It should be noticed that there has been a 25-fold surge in oil shipments by rail in the last five years.  These shipments have resulted in eight serious oil train accidents in the US and Canada in just the last year and in some cases the accidents caused spectacular fires and explosions. In the worst incident, last July in Canada, a train with 72 oil cars derailed and plowed into a town, exploded, killed 47 people and destroyed half of the town.

Californians won’t take any comfort in knowing that more than 200,000 barrels of crude oil per month were imported into our state last summer by rail, a fourfold increase since 2012, according to a Los Angeles Times report in September.

Supporters of fracking primarily cite its alleged economic benefits. Of course, oil and gas companies stand to make considerable profits from the use of fracking, but these same companies also like to point to the potential for increased revenues to state and municipal governments and substantial job creation. But do oil industry claims about enhanced government revenues and job growth from an expansion of fracking really hold up to scrutiny? Let’s examine the recent experience of the city of Carson.

Carson is a demographically diverse community of about 92,000 residents located in southwestern Los Angeles County. Occidental Petroleum has proposed a massive oil project there and is seeking to drill more than 200 new wells in the northern part of the city, near California State University Dominguez Hills. On March 18,2014, according to the LA Times, the Carson City Council unanimously passed a 45-day moratorium on all new oil drilling because of citizen outcry about the dangers presented by the Occidental project, especially the use of fracking.

However, on April 29, the Carson council failed to garner enough votes to extend the moratorium, in part because, unlike previous council meetings, supporters of the drilling project, many of them claiming to be union members with T-shirts and signs that read “Jobs for Carson,” showed-up in large numbers.

How many jobs are we talking about? According to Carson City Councilman Albert Robles, there are only a little over 100 temporary jobs (such as construction), and less than two-dozen long-lasting jobs over the life of the project (estimated to be 30 to 40 years). And this is according to Occidental’s own numbers.

Councilman Robles, who grew-up in Carson, is the first in his family to graduate from high school and he went on to obtain several university degrees (culminating with a juris doctorate from UC Berkeley). He’s nobody’s fool. He led the charge on the 45-day moratorium and voted to extend it. “When you’ve got 10,000 residents who live in their homes within a very short vicinity of that [Occidental] project and two-dozen jobs, it’s a no-brainer to me,” Robles is quoted saying in the Times. “But it’s not about the jobs. It’s about money [for Occidental].”

What about revenue to the city of Carson from the Occidental project? Again, according to Councilman Robles, city staff has estimated it would amount to roughly $1 million a year after the project ramps up to full capacity. This for a city that currently has an annual budget of about $70 million. This $1 million amounts to 1.4 percent of that annual budget — a pittance. So much for an economic boom for the city of Carson from Occidental’s proposed oil drilling project.

I asked Councilman Robles if he agreed that Carson could be a microcosm for the entire state of California, which is constantly bombarded with oil industry hype about all the jobs and government revenue that will accrue from an expansion of fracking in our state. He answered “yes."

Big Oil has a powerful grip on the California Legislature, and that goes a long way toward explaining why multiple bills calling for a fracking moratorium died in 2013, despite the fact that Democrats held super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. Last year the Western States Petroleum Association ranked first in lobbying spending in the state: according to an LA Times report of official filings, the Association spent $4.7 million on lobbying.  Chevron was close behind, spending nearly $4 million in 2013.

Earlier versions of this piece were published in the Pasadena Weekly on March 20 and May 21, 2014.