Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has come under scrutiny for its potential impacts on water, including the risks to water quality and the amount of water used in the practice. California’s new regulations on petroleum well stimulation treatments are set to take effect on July 1, 2015, and include multiple measures to safeguard against risks to water quality from fracking. These new requirements, coupled with the results of an independent study issued pursuant to Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), which found that fracking in the Golden State utilizes significantly less water than in other areas of the country, confirm that curtailing hydraulic fracturing will not be a path to resolving the state’s water woes.
Pursuant to SB 4, the California Council on Science and Technology, with the assistance of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was commissioned to prepare a three-volume independent study of well stimulation technologies in California. Volume I, titled “Well Stimulation Technologies and Their Past, Present, and Potential Future Use in California,” was issued in January 2015. This first volume assessed well stimulation technologies deployed in oil and gas production in California and where the technologies might enable production in the future. Volumes II and III of the independent study are anticipated to be released on July 1, 2015. Volume II will address the ways in which well stimulation affects water and other environmental concerns, explore how the technology could pose human health hazards, and identify data gaps and alternative practices. Volume III will provide case studies to assess environmental issues and qualitative risks for geographic regions of the state.
Volume I of the independent study found that approximately 20 percent of petroleum production in California comes from wells that have been hydraulically fractured, with almost all hydraulic fracturing occurring in the San Joaquin Basin. Dry gas wells were found to be rarely stimulated in the state, with none reported since 2011. The independent study confirmed that fracking has been employed in the state for more than 60 years, since 1953.
Importantly, the independent study concluded that hydraulic fracturing activities in California are different from other areas of the country, and, as such, experiences with hydraulic fracturing in other states do not necessarily apply to hydraulic fracturing in California. It found that significant differences existed with the hydraulic fracturing technology being employed in the state versus elsewhere. Notably, the independent study found that hydraulic fracturing in California occurred over shorter treatment intervals and in shallower vertical wells without an extensive horizontal component commonly employed in other regions. Consequently, the independent study found that the practices and impacts of hydraulic fracturing in other states do not directly apply to current hydraulic fracturing in California.
This difference in fracking practices has positive consequences when it comes to water use, which is of particular importance in California in the midst of a water crisis. Volume I dispelled some misperceptions about fracking’s use of water in the state, which leads to the conclusion that curbing water used for fracking will not even add so much as the proverbial “drop in the bucket” toward resolving the state’s water shortage. The independent study concludes that fracking in California uses only a fraction of the amount of water needed for fracking in other states. Fracking of a typical well in California uses approximately 140,000 gallons of water, compared with the millions of gallons that can be used for fracking a well in other areas of the country. As pointed out by the independent study, this average amount of water used to frack a well in California was approximately the same as, if not less than, the amount of water used by a family of four in a year. This average totals approximately 500 acre-feet of water used to frack annually in California, based upon the independent study’s estimated 1,200 wells fracked in 2013. By comparison, the total amount of water consumed annually in California is estimated to be 64 million acre-feet, over half of which is by agriculture.
Aside from water use, fracking has raised concerns with regard to its potential for impacting water quality. The soon-to-be-issued Volume II of the independent study will address concerns over potential impacts to water quality, as will a long-awaited study by the US Environmental Protection Agency of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas and its potential impact on drinking water resources, now expected to be finalized in 2016. Not waiting for either, California has moved to institute a host of safeguards to protect against groundwater contamination from fracking through its comprehensive regulations scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2015. These new regulations will require a permit to conduct well stimulation, with aspects of the regulations being overseen by two state agencies, the Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board. The regulations set forth requirements to ensure well integrity and the geologic and hydrologic isolation of the oil and gas formation during and after well stimulation treatments with monitoring and modeling of the well stimulation treatment. The chemical constituents of the well stimulation treatment fluids and disposition of well stimulation fluids are required to be disclosed, and groundwater monitoring and water management plans must be prepared and implemented, with neighboring property owners and tenants being entitled to request water well testing.
The debate on hydraulic fracturing in California will not end with the implementation of the state’s new regulations. Indeed, parties from all sides of the debate are likely eager to review the next two volumes of the independent study in July looking for support of their respective positions. However, the very limited quantity of water employed in-state for fracking leads to the conclusion that fracking is not the drain of the state’s water resources as previously perceived and that the resolution of the water crisis will not be accomplished through the banning of fracking.
This article was originally published in Environmental Leader, May 19, 2015.