A new kind of “gold rush” fever is gripping America. It’s the rush to unleash hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology on American fossil fuel deposits that have hitherto been too expensive to develop profitably. Fracking is dropping the cost of extracting oil and gas for the oil companies involved, but much of that cost has been shifted onto the public in the form of contaminated drinking water, polluted air, degraded waterways, and crashing property values.
As gold rushes inevitably seem to do, this one is now bringing legions of would-be fossil fuel millionaires to California. What draws them? The Monterey Shale, which underlies much of the Central Valley and the Central Coast, and reaches as far south as Los Angeles. It holds 15 billion barrels of oil that are now, suddenly, commercially viable.
With potential profits hitting stratospheric levels, the pressure to “just do it” is immense. And of course, the industry interests involved pitch the development of the Monterey Shale as a mighty jobs creator, even though the actual economic results are currently mostly speculative.
In September, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed California’s first fracking bill, SB4. It contains many provisions that are being ignored elsewhere, like requiring oil and gas companies to get fracking permits, disclose the fracking chemicals they use, and notify neighbors before drilling. But it does allow fracking to continue, even while state officials scramble to complete a study that evaluates the risks of fracking in California.
Given the industry’s give-us-an-inch-and-we’ll-take-a-mile attitude, this compromise will almost inevitably deliver a series of environmental and health crises to Californians, especially given that the Monterey Shale lies below most of the sources of drinking water for Central Valley residents. And of course, the huge amounts of water required for fracking will add more strain to drought-prone California’s water woes.
The California Department of Conservation (DOC) is currently soliciting comments from the public on its proposed oil and gas regulations, with the comment period open through January 14, 2014. (You can see them here.) But the truly cautious choice would be a ban on fracking until the effects on people, animals, our air and water, and the global environment are better understood. The fracking industry should shoulder the burden of proving itself safe, rather than pursuing a “shoot first and ask questions later” policy.