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Frack to the Future

County Supervisor Doreen Farr Addresses State Regulators


As state lawmakers begin to look at potential new regulations on hydraulic fracturing in California oil and gas production, Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr traveled to Sacramento Tuesday to brief a group of legislators on the county’s own regulation of the controversial practice, commonly known as fracking.

California is the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation, according to officials from the Department of Conservation. But with the 1,700-square-mile untapped Monterey Shale, which is estimated to hold roughly 60 percent of the country’s shale-oil reserves — potentially 15 billion barrels of oil — the meeting comes at an important time for decision-makers entrusted with the state’s future.

The Senate committees on Natural Resources and Water and on Environmental Quality convened Tuesday to tackle the oil-extraction practice, which involves the high-pressure injecting of water, sand, and chemicals into rock, causing the rock to crack and release trapped oil or gas. “Fracking is a different animal,” said State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who said she wanted to make sure “we get a very good understanding of all these practices.”

Stakeholders — including environmental and industry groups — and public officials addressed the committees on regulation of fracking in California during a meeting that lasted in excess of four-and-a-half hours. They talked about the history of the practice in the state, which extends back some 60 years, as well as the current framework of the regulations and proposed changes.

The main issues seemed to center around forcing the public disclosure of the use of toxic materials prior to and after the fracking operation, and the monitoring of groundwater. Environmentalists are concerned that the mixture of toxins and sediment that are released as a result of fracking leads to groundwater contamination. Additionally, John Parrish, the California state geologist, said hydraulic fracturing can lead to “induced seismic events,” most of them microseismic.

Though oil and gas production are already heavily regulated, several agencies are currently constrained when it comes to fracking. For instance, the Water Resources Control Board has no authority over the production of oil but can regulate the discharge of waste that could impact the groundwater. The state Department of Conservation/Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal currently regulates wells, but regulation of the discharge of the waste is up in the air. Jonathan Bishop of the Water Resources Control Board said those were the gaps that need to be filled.

That’s where Farr came in — to bring some insight into how Santa Barbara County closed some of its own gaps through regulation. The supervisor shared with the committees how she came to find out about fracking in the Los Alamos Valley, and how county Planning and Development staff were unaware that the fracking was going on.

Farr’s office first caught wind of fracking on two wells outside of Los Alamos in 2011. At the time, the permit did not allow for fracking, but it also did not expressly prevent it. As a result, the issue went to the Board of Supervisors, which spent four public meetings going over its permitting process. Eventually, the county revised its zoning code, requiring oil producers to alert officials if they planned to use hydraulic fracturing on any new or existing well.

Farr — based on her own experience in Santa Barbara — urged the committees that a 30-day notice of a fracking operation should be required, as well as the disclosure of fracking chemicals. She told the committees to address implementation. “As we well know, any rule is only as good as the enforcement of it,” she said. Annual well reports should be done, and failures should be noted, she said. And lastly, she said, the state should not preempt local government from the role of regulating fracking as a county land-use issue.

Proposed notification provisions would include making planned fracturing known at least 10 days prior to its start, what well is being fracked, the depth, who the operator is, and a fracture analysis. The information would be posted on a government-run website.

For their part, industry representatives said, as long as trade secrets are not revealed, they are not opposed to disclosure of what substances they use in their fracking. State Senator Jean Fuller, a Republican from Bakersfield, said there has been no evidence of harm to the water supply or environment, and until there was, the state should proceed with caution when instituting more regulation.

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