Drilling Down Fracking Regulations

May 2, 2013

A poster at the public workshop in Monterey depicts a typical hydraulic fracturing operation.


As some California legislators push for a moratorium on fracking, the state continues to move forward on its first set of rules to govern this method of extracting oil and gas.  It held a public comment meeting on the proposed regulations Tuesday in Monterey.

Regulations on the oil and gas industry in California have long focused on oil wells: well design, construction and competency.  The existing rules apply to any and all methods of extracting oil and gas.  And for about 50 years, one of those methods has been hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  Recent public interest in fracking, and growing interest by oil companies in California’s Monterey Shale formation, has led to the state pursue regulations specific to fracking.  “Given the nature of concern about this issue,  frankly the lack of any clear roadmap for how is that the operators are doing that activity.  We need to set that standard,” said Jason Marshall, Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Conservation. 

That road map means for the first time the general public and public officials will know where and when fracking is taking place.  But exactly when the public is “in the know” was a point of concern at Tuesday’s  workshop.  The current draft of the regulations calls on oil companies to notify the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, ten days before any planned fracking. That leaves the public even less than ten days to find out about it.  “I mean my primary thing was no adequate notice,” said Pat Lerman with Aromas Cares for the Environment, a local group working to make sure safeguards are in place when it comes to all area oil and gas exploration.  “You have to notify adjacent land owners that something may be going on around them, so the community can mobilize, can give input, can find out,” she continued.  This is a point DOGGR had heard loud and clear by this the fifth and final public workshop on the regulations.  Officials said not only will the next draft of regulations include a longer notification period, but it’s looking into doing email alerts for those who sign up. 

Other issues were less easily addressed at the public workshop. David Hobstetter with the Center for Biological Diversity shared a concern of many in attendance -- the regulations’ protection of trade secrets, and what that could mean in an emergency.  “So this could create a huge problems if someone is exposed to fracking chemicals, and they would have to go into the emergency room. A doctor wouldn’t have direct access to what chemicals they might be exposed to,” said Hobstetter.  To this the state’s Jason Marshall said the regulations must comply with the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. But that DOGGR has enlisted the help of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility on a way to draft language that addresses this problem, while still following the law.  “Those are the situations where trade secret be darned, you need to give us the information,” said Marshall.

Oil and gas industry representatives at the meeting said they welcomed the regulations.  Dave Quast, for one, said he hopes transparency will start to make people comfortable with fracking.  Quast is with Energy InDepth, an industry education and research group.  “It’s a proven technology, it’s not new, and it’s something that we can continue to use as needed as appropriate in California,” said Quast.  He points out that when it comes to California’s complex geology, fracking may not even be the method of choice for exploring the Monterey Shale. “We're not necessarily talking about horizontal drilling, and we're not necessarily talking about hydraulic fracturing when we're talking about the Monterey Shale. We don’t know how companies are going to be able to access those hydro carbons and develop them.  They’re going to have to explore, they’re going to have to see if they have existing technology or if they have to create new technology.  It’s a vast potential, but at this point that’s what it is, a potential,” said Quast.  And that’s what concerns Pat Lerman about this discussion on fracking regulations -- that the state and concerned citizens could be behind the times.  “I'm glad we're doing this.  But I have to say in sixty years of activism it feels like this is always happening.  You are already sort of chasing the tail end.  You know were doing BP after it happened already.  But we’ve got to get ahead of it because oil is a valuable commodity and there seems to be a lack of interest in renewable resources lately,” said Lerman.

From here DOGGR will write new draft regulations, followed by more public comment, and then final fracking regulations should be in place in about a year.