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California’s New Fracking Regulations Delayed Half a Year

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An oil well next to orchards in Shafter, California, where oil companies have been fracking. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

An oil well next to orchards in Shafter, California. Oil companies have been fracking in this area. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

California’s new regulations for hydraulic fracturing will be delayed by six months, after state legislators approved a bill in late June authorizing the change.

The wide-reaching regulations were scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2015. Now, the regulations will begin on July 1, 2015, though the Department of Conservation must still finalize them by the end of this year.

State regulators say the change will help align the efforts of two agencies that are writing the new fracking regulations. The deadlines for the agencies were spelled out in SB 4, a bill the State Legislature passed in 2013.

In addition to getting a permit for fracking from the Department of Conservation, oil operators will be required to write a groundwater monitoring plan that specifies how they’ll test water quality if they drill in an area with usable groundwater. The requirement was prompted by concerns that fracking could contaminate groundwater supplies.

The groundwater monitoring plans must be approved by water regulators with the State Water Quality Control Board. That agency is currently developing the criteria to judge the plans with, but it has until July 1, 2015 to create them.

“To me, it’s a logical matching up of a couple deadlines,” says Jason Marshall of the Department of Conservation.

“If this hadn’t been pushed back, my department would have been getting applications for well stimulation,” he says. “And the operator would have gone to water board to get the plan approved and the water board would have said ‘You need to wait six months, because we don’t have criteria developed yet.’”

Under temporary fracking regulations now in place, oil operators must submit groundwater monitoring plans, but currently they’re approved by oil and gas regulators under a set of more minimal requirements.

“There is groundwater monitoring going on right now, but is it to the full degree that it will be in July (2015)? Probably not,” Marshall says.

Environmental groups have mixed feelings about the timeline change.

“There was 50 years of non-regulation, and it’s an extra six months,” says Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group. “It’s not the most desirable thing, but we are getting relatively good public disclosure about fracking for the first time.”

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says no regulation can ensure fracking is safe and he’d prefer to see it halted altogether in California. Nonetheless, he says the final regulations do include important rules that will now, unfortunately, also be delayed. Those include a requirement that oil operators monitor seismic activity during fracking and must stop operations if there’s an earthquake registering 2.0 or greater.

Kretzmann says it’s unusual for temporary regulations to be in place for so long. “It’s confounding that their so-called emergency regulations will now be in effect for 18 months,” he says. “Under California law, the limit for emergency regulations is 12 months, so they had to make a statutory exemption.”

Getting Rid of the “Magic Wand”

The bill that approved the delay—what lawmakers call a trailer bill—made another change that some environmentalists are cheering.

Under SB 4, the fracking regulation bill, oil and gas regulators had so-called “magic wand” power to decide on the level of environmental review a fracking operation must undergo. Several environmental groups pulled their support for the bill when that provision was added.

“The (oil and gas) supervisor would have been able to waive environmental review based on prior environmental reviews,” Allayaud says.

California oil and gas regulators are currently reviewing the potential impacts of fracking statewide in an environmental impact report. Environmental groups expressed concerned that regulators would cite this broad statewide review as an adequate basis for granting fracking permits, as opposed to requiring a more site-specific review.

Now, under the new provision approved in late June, the level of environmental review will be decided on a case-by-case basis as permit requests come in, says the Department of Conservation’s Jason Marshall. “It’s going to depend on where in the state you’re talking about,” he says. “We have wildly differing amounts of information about the impacts.”

Other agencies will also be able to weigh in on environmental impacts, under the new language. “The change makes clear that there is still opportunity for other agencies or local governments to conduct their own environmental review or impose mitigation measures,” says Kretzmann.

Environmental groups say they’ll be watching closely. “There are still going to be some questions down the road,” Allayaud says.

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Category: Energy, Environment, News, Water

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • Philip Bowles

    An over reaction to a non problem. In “fifty years of non-regulation” (untrue), has there been one instance in which fracking in California polluted groundwater?

  • Chanty

    Yes, at least one incident due to mishandling of the waste water near
    Fred Starrh’s property. Go ahead and get technical say it wasn’t
    “drinking water” just “farm” water. Fracked waste water with its heavy metal and frack fluid slurry and the resulting issues caused by the what, where and how of its
    disposal is where the majority of the “action” is in this industry….where does it all go. “Recycled” you say? Really? And you believe in the tooth fairy too I supposed.

    “Profits at any price” and “get away with what you can while you can” seems to be
    the industry and their cheerleaders’ mottos. And their method? Delay, distract and discourage….Yes or No? Look at how they have
    conducted themselves for however many decades they have been carrying
    this on in Kern County. Colluding with the water districts to obtain water before local farmers because of course they can afford it and as market forces will have it those you can pay are the only ones who get play. Actions speak louder than the words of a 1000 well funded shills. The proof is in the pudding in Kern county as its 3rd world conditions all around? Yes or No?

    Also, lets be honest its not just about the safe guarding the remaining water supplies. The air pollutants and toxins created by this industry are just as much a risk to public saftey, as contamination of the water supplies by the fracked waste water.

    • Philip Bowles

      I am a farmer, but freely admit that using water to produce oil generates far more value than using water to grow crops. The water demands of the oil industry are infinitesimal compared to agricultural or residential demand, however. The incident to which you refer was extremely minor in nature, and as you point out, unrelated to the fracking process itself. Waste water is generated in conventional well drilling, (and construction, and in tomato processing, and in…) and must be disposed of legally and safely. The contractor was caught, and fined.

  • Chanty

    Since you do seem informed of this incident how long exactly did it take before Mr. Starrh was made whole i.e. compensated for his polluted water, dead cattle and damaged land? Can you riddle us that Mr. Bowles? Just yesterday you said their was NO known cases now its just one MINOR case. Minimize much? Wonder if you would be so blase if it hand been your land or your cattle. One does wonder Mr. Bowles!

  • http://CAFrackFacts.org/ CAFrackFacts

    For more information on the regulation of fracking wastewater visit CAFrackFacts.org:

    http://www.cafrackfacts.org/impacts/water/

  • http://www.pvwizard.com/ Steve C. Yang, P.E.

    For California, fracking poses extra risk, because we have major and minor fault lines crisscrossing the Monterey Formation. It’s the aquifer that I worry about, when these fault lines intersect aquifers AND the fracking zones, the faults could act as conduits for fracking fluid to migrate into the aquifer.

  • Pamela Zuppo

    Water! Where will Californians find water? What this particular article fails to discuss is the oil industry’s huge waste of viable clean water. A DOGGR representative has been quoted stating oil wells use 160,000 gallons of water to frack one oil well. It’s unfortunate a person who relies on tax payer money for his paycheck to so blatantly lie. In the old days, he would be hunted and hung; however, in contemporary times all we can do is expose the lying. Ironically, the industry itself has publicly stated its water use will inevitably increase and industry sources tell us some wells can require over a million gallons of water per well, sometimes up to five million gallons. While the oil industry can continue to steal California’s scarce water from underneath almond and agricultural fields and from the side of their collective mouth suggest they use recycled fracking wastewater, they are again engaged in blatant lying. Few, if any use the so-called recycled water because it represents an additional cost – and that would dig into their obscene profits.

    Other points of fact omission or blatant lying are many. For instance, examine the rhetoric suggesting oil from California secures California’s energy requirements. THAT is another mythical assumption neocons in this state believe. It amazes me people cannot understand that oil is a world market commodity. Oil is sold on the
    global market, so there’s no guarantee that oil fracked in California would
    actually be consumed in California.

    A perspective of oil fracking that gets ignored by those who are so very concerned with California’s economy believing oil will strengthen it and that is the negative health impacts, primarily suffered by those nearest to fracked oil wells, but suffered by all in California. Health cannot be measured in revenue dollars – at least it shouldn’t be. Kern county, where oil production is the highest in the state, has the worst air quality in the entire country. Childhood asthma in Kern county is off the charts. Residents suffer headaches, bouts of sickness, and mysterious cancers. According to the AIS Cancer Center, in the next 10 years, new cancer cases in Kern County are expected to double.

    Proponents of oil fracking always place front and center how the industry contributes to the state’s revenue, but fair reporting requires some facts and math. Oil revenues are not shared in this state and they certainly do not add to any community beyond employment numbers (and those poor souls will suffer through bad health and healthcare costs and losses). California is the only major oil producing state in the country that doesn’t require oil companies to pay their extraction taxes, costing the state some $2 billion a year. Doing the math, there have been billion dollar agricultural losses due to the oil industry’s theft of groundwater and untold billions related to healthcare (a cost shared by all of us).

    Lastly, what about AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006? AB 32, consists of a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases that has put the state on track to meet its emissions goals for 2020, kick-start the state’s green technology industry, generate hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit and other projects, and will further reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In 2015, AB 32 will begin to cover companies that produce transportation fuels, including gasoline. That means oil companies should begin paying for the greenhouse gases their products emit, a cost the oil companies say they will pass on to consumers – who are now screaming foul. How do our oil-industry-bought state legislators respond? They respond by offering a bill to delay the cap-and-trade program. Here’s the fallacy: gas prices have already risen by close to 50 cents a gallon since the beginning of the year for reasons not connected to AB 32 and gas prices will continue to rise as long as the oil companies can increase their profits. Emissions from the transportation sector,
    which in California means mostly cars and trucks, are the single largest source
    of greenhouse gases, according to the state Air Resources Board. Why would we delay the commencement of cap-and-trade? AB 32 was designed to encourage Californians to engage in public transportation and car pooling – not be complacent with the status quo. AB 32 is also a signal to the renewable energy industry to emerge more aggressively, creating a more level energy playing field.

    Remember this: Regulations can never make fracking safe for the public, only a ban on fracking can do that. And the oil industry takes pages from the tobacco industry playbook…it’s all history; they will always fight to keep their obscene profits they derive off the backs of every citizen. It’s time to transition without any further delay.