California Fracking Oversight Agencies Lack Inspectors, Knowledge, Says EPA

Dan Aiello



As more than 100 environmental groups launched a massive anti-fracking campaign yesterday in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, California Progress Report's review of the agencies charged with oil industry oversight and protecting the state's groundwater supplies has found troubling signs that California is woefully unprepared to manage a proliferation of fracking wells anticipated to tap into the newly discovered Monterey Shale Deposit.

The deposit, stretching along the Golden State's ecologically fragile coastline from Los Angeles to San Francisco and through some of the most densely-populated regions, is said to contain up to 15.4 billion barrels of oil some 11,000 feet deep, and oil companies are keen to exploit the huge deposit in the only state that lacks any kind of oil severance tax.

Pumpjacks on Lost Hills Oil Field in California on Route 46 at sunset. Photo credit: Arne Hückelheim

Environmentalists believe a new hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, oil drilling method developed by Halliburton in 2007 and capable of horizontal drilling up to 3,000 feet horizontally and a mile vertically using "proprietary" secret chemicals poses great risk to the state's other precious resource, water.

According to these groups, California agencies charged with protecting Californians and the state's natural resources from the dangers of oil production have, instead, been biased toward the oil companies that have been regulated but largely unmonitored with dire consequences in the past.

The State's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), has been more lapdog than bulldog, say environmentalists.

Among the concerns of environmentalists is the lack of on-the-ground field inspectors for both DOGGR and California's Water Quality Boards.

"The lack of inspectors monitoring an industry known for oil and gas spills, leaks and water contamination is abysmal and is exactly why we need to stop fracking in California," Kristen Lynch, Pacific Regional Director of Food and Water Watch, told California Progress Report.

In an independent review requested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of oil industry practices in California, deficiencies in the qualifications, knowledge and number of inspectors appear to validate environmentalists' claims that the state is ill-equipped to protect California's groundwater supply from an oil industry with a history of ignoring environmental regulations.

The report, conducted by the Horsley Witten Group, cited several areas where CDOGGR fell short in its inspection and data collection on the state's thousands of conventional, fracking (underground injection), underground stimulation, idle and disposal oil wells.

The report also noted an inadequate number of DOGGR inspectors and the practices, training and knowledge of these inspectors were cited, as well, noting the types of tests chosen and conducted by these inspectors were not the most detailed or investigative.

DOGGR inspectors in at least some of the state's nine districts routinely avoided use of what were referred to as "stronger" tests.

Asked about the report's criticism of DOGGR and lack of progress toward addressing the inadequacies, California's Department of Conservation spokesman, Don Drysdale, told CPR, "The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources currently has about 60 positions that perform field inspections. This represents an increase of a dozen inspectors from the time of the U.S. EPA audit of the state's underground injection program. The Division sent its response to the U.S. EPA in December and is in the process of developing a rule-making package to address the concerns raised. There is no timeline available for the completion of the rule-making process.

"As you may be aware," Drysdale continued, "DOGGR's response letter to U.S. EPA and action plan are available on the website."

Drysdale deferred further questions to Clay Rodgers, Assistant Executive Officer of the Central Valley Water Board, the state's largest water district encompassing 40 percent of the state from Goose Lake on the Oregon Border to Frasier Park at the top of the Grapevine and from the crest of the coastal range to the crest of the Sierras.

The Central Valley Water Board District also includes Shafter, California, home of the Vintage oil fracking well environmental disaster and Bakersfield, California, home of the conventional drilling contamination by Aera oil of the Starrh family farm.

When asked how many acres were under cultivation in his district, Rodgers knew immediately, telling CPR "seven million." But when asked how many oil wells existed in his district Rodgers said he didn't know. Asked how many of those wells were being fracked Rodgers, a Hydro Geologist, also did not know.

According to Rodgers, of the 223 Central Valley Water Board employees, only two on-the-ground inspectors are employed to monitor and obtain data on the thousands of oil wells, including Kern County's, the state's largest oil producing region. The region also is home to an estimated 680 wells already being fracked in the Central Valley.

Rodgers said there are no plans to increase the number of inspectors. "We work with the resources we're given," he told CPR.

"Fracking should not be occurring in California with such inadequate oversight," Kassie Siegel, Director of the Climate Law Institute with the Center for Biological Diversity. "State oil and gas regulators (DOGGR) are ignoring existing regulations that clearly do apply to fracking, and state agencies have insufficient resources and personnel to ensure enforcement of the rules that are being implemented."

Several bills are currently active in the legislature that seek to add resources to both the DOGGR and water quality boards budgets, most notably SB 241, Senator Noreen Evans bill calling for an oil severance tax that would have the oil industry help pay for the monitoring of their wells so that cases like that of Fred Starrh and the Vintage oil field fracking environmental disasters don't happen again.

Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), a moderate whose legislation last year to regulate fracking was crushed by the oil industry's $8.5 million-strong lobby, now may seem like a missed opportunity to oil companies.

Pavley does not seek a fracking moratorium and believes the state agencies can monitor the wells. "DOGGR has acknowledged there are issues with its inspection procedures and other aspects of its Underground Injection Control program, and Sen. Pavley is hopeful the agency will continue to work to improve the program," Will Jason, Senator Pavley's communications director, told CPR.

Of the three fracking moratorium bills, two are said to still be in play: AB 1323 (Mitchell) and AB 649 (Nazarian).

Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report. His coverage of California water issues and fracking were recently cited in a San Diego Union Tribune editorial, "A Faustian Bargain."