Thursday, February 10, 2011
Officials are scrambling to learn about a practice widely used by the oil industry, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” even as a letter sent to the EPA by ranking U.S. House committee members found some fracking fluids violate the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Monterey County zoning administrator in October approved a use permit for Denver-based oil company Venoco to drill up to nine exploratory wells in the Hames Valley using fracking. An appeal filed by Ventana Conservation and Land Trust of Lockwood is slated to be heard by the county planning commission on March 30. Until then, Venoco cannot proceed.
Taven Kinison-Brown, Monterey County’s planning services manager, says Venoco has not responded to phone calls since December nor provided information necessary for him to begin preparing documents for the appeal hearing.
“What we recommend is we look at the environmental ramifications a little deeper,” says Kinison-Brown. Although the county has been granting use permits to oil companies since the 1930s, “Fracking has just recently come to our attention in Monterey County,” he says.
In addition to the Venoco permit, at least one oil company has expressed interest in leasing 2,445 acres of Bureau of Land Management mineral estates of the same Monterey shale formation. The BLM declined to identify that company.
In existing oil fields in the San Ardo area, oil reservoirs lie roughly 2,000 feet below the surface. The oil industry has recently begun prospecting deeper reserves at 9,000 to 10,000 feet, contained in rock and accessible only through fracking, in which fluid under pressure is injected into rock formations, creating narrow fissures that allow oil or natural gas to flow freely.
The 2005 Energy Bill exempted fracking fluids – generally considered by the industry to be proprietary – from disclosure to the EPA. The exception, though, is diesel, the subject of the congressional investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That investigation revealed millions of gallons of diesel fuel in fracking fluids were injected into wells nationwide without appropriate EPA permits from 2005 to 2009, including 26,466 gallons in California. The committee sent its findings to the EPA on Jan. 31.
“To the best of my knowledge, diesel is not being used currently [in California],” says David Smyser, a senior coordinator for Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobby group.
Among the components listed in Venoco’s proposed fracking fluid is a gellant with a 60 to 70 percent concentration of “petroleum distillate blend.” Because this is proprietary to manufacturer Baker Hughes, the precise blend is undisclosed, so it may or may not contain diesel or other petroleum grades like paraffin or kerosene, according to a spokesperson from the American Petroleum Institute. Venoco and Baker Hughes declined to comment. About 99.5 percent of the Venoco blend is water and sand.
The extent of fracking in the county is unknown. The organization Halt Oil Drilling Now (HOLD) hosted a community meeting Feb. 5 in Lockwood to shed light on the practice, bringing together representatives of the county, BLM and WSPA. None of these organizations collect data on fracking. County planners believe there is only one fracking well.
Rick Cooper, a BLM field manager whose field office covers an area stretching from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco and the coast to I-5, says there are no available data on federal lands because “If it’s a routine frack, they don’t inform us.” There is no definition of a non-routine frack.