Assembly Fracking Hearing Looks at Impacts to Water Quality

Two Assembly committees heard testimony May 14 from public policy experts, state officials, and industry and environmental groups on how hydraulic fracturing in California may impact water quality and how future regulations could address public health and environmental concerns.

The joint informational hearing, called “Hydraulic Fracturing in California: Water Quality Protection,” was convened by the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee at the Capitol.

Fracking is emerging as a key topic at the Capitol this year, with several bills related to practice moving through policy committees this session. In addition, the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is expected to release discussion draft regulations on hydraulic fracturing in the coming weeks.

Two policy experts affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, set the stage at the May 14 hearing by outlining their recommendations in a recent report for how the state could strengthen its regulatory framework and improve data collection on wells, injection chemicals, wastewater and other areas.

Michael Kiparsky, associate director of the UC Berkeley Wheeler Institute for Water Law and Policy, said that fracking presents a “risk” to environmental quality and public health, and that wastewater and other potentially toxic byproducts must be managed.

“Once fracking has been conducted, its effects may be impossible to reverse,” Kiparsky said, adding that “the science remains uncertain, particularly in the face of technology that is rapidly evolving.”

Although most fracking operations currently in the state are in the western part of Kern County, Kiparsky noted that the expansive Monterey Shale formation is a prime target for development and could spark “high-volume” fracking more commonly seen in other states. Better baseline water quality data is needed to effectively regulate the industry, he said.

Jayni Foley Hein, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, added that the regulations put forward in DOGGR’s discussion draft are currently not as robust as those found in other states. She said improvements are needed to the public notice process pertaining to fracking operations, as well as disclosure about “trade-secret” fracking chemicals.

Mark Nechoderm, director of the California Department of Conservation, said many of the recommendations from UC Berkeley are incorporated in the DOGGR discussion draft, which he said could be released in a matter of weeks. After the document’s release , public comment for as long as one year will ensue. Nechoderm said the department will move as quickly as possible, “but we will not rush.”

Nechoderm confirmed that the state has not collected any data showing instances of contaminated groundwater or surface water as a result of fracking activity, a fact backed by two oil and gas industry representatives who testified Tuesday.

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said the industry supports comprehensive regulations. “We do understand there is some public fear we have to allay,” he said. Zierman added that fracking wells in California are using less water than in other states because companies are trying to extract oil, not natural gas. He said current activity in Kern County also is not imperiling water sources because there is not impacted groundwater there.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said that while the board has “broad authority” on water issues, the state likely will have to update how the board and DOGGR divide their responsibilities on fracking oversight. A range of issues will have to be looked at, she said, including the possibility that pre-treatment rules for fracking wastewater will be needed to protect treatment facilities. Additional staff for enforcement and monitoring might also be needed, she said.

“This is a case of where we’re trying to get ahead of the curve, which allows us the time to be thoughtful about it and figure out how to come up with prudent regulations that will avoid … some of the things that weren’t anticipated in the past,” Marcus said.

“Although we haven’t experienced the rapid boom in fracking that’s happened in some of the other states in the country,” Marcus continued, “we have the benefit of their efforts, and the benefit of having a little time to get something in place ahead of time.”

But environmental groups testifying Tuesday said that the lack of scientific studies in California as well as instances of contamination in other states are evidence enough that fracking is a pressing concern.

Assembly members at the hearing also weighed in. Assembly Member Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) expressed his concern that the fracking regulations might block economic growth, especially in light of research he cited projecting that development of the Monterey Shale could be a potential windfall. Assembly Member Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) said local governments are being approached by concerned citizens, and some counties already are thinking about how they might regulate fracking themselves.