Disaster waiting to happen
Lawmakers need a better understanding of the dangers of fracking
By John Grula 03/20/2014
*See bottom notation for clarification
State Assemblyman Chris Holden deserves credit for trying to better educate his constituents about the oil and natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Holden did this by convening a community briefing in Claremont on March 1.
Well over 100 people attended the three-hour briefing, and after a panel of four experts assembled by Holden had concluded their remarks, the last hour or so was devoted to comments and questions from the audience. Nearly all the audience commentators expressed grave concerns about fracking, and enthusiastic support for fracking was not expressed.
Fracking is a technique that has been around for some 50 years, but it was 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, as pointed out by one of the panelists, Ken Manning, who is executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. Manning listed surface water contamination, soil contamination, wastewater disposal, air pollution, water supply threats, damage to natural habitats, and nuisances (noise, traffic, odors). He also listed earthquakes as a potential threat that may result from fracking.
Another panelist, Dr. Joann Stock of the Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, was careful to explain that 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. Stock said we need to take this threat seriously, and presented results from some preliminary studies she and other geologists have conducted on this subject.
Manning revealed that there is a lot fracking currently taking place in the Long Beach area. 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 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.
During the briefing, Holden disclosed that six different bills had been introduced in the Assembly, three of which called for a fracking moratorium in California. That all six died while Democrats held a super-majority in the Assembly is shameful.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City) has recently introduced a new bill, Senate Bill 1132, that again calls for a fracking moratorium in our state. It deserves local state Sen. Carol Liu’s support and it deserves Holden’s support. As the Majority Whip in the Assembly, Holden wields substantial power and influence. He should use it to do the right thing and help SB1132 become law.
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.
* This version of Dr. Grula’s column contains Assemblyman Chris Holden’s voting record on fracking bills considered by the Legislature in 2013.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.