Fracking: Potential Miracle And Big Challenge

Saturday, 6 Apr 2013, 8:58:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Starting with the day in January 1848 when gold flakes and nuggets first

turned up at Sutter’s Mill northeast of Sacramento, California has seen plenty

of economic miracles, each focused in a different part of the


The Gold Rush brought more than 300,000 people to the state, previously a

sleepy outpost. The movie industry was the next big miracle, bringing

international attention to Southern California for the first time.

The phenomenon of the 1990s put the spotlight on Silicon Valley

south of San Francisco.

Each boom brought the state out of a slump, but sometimes there were also

negative consequences.

Now the Monterey Shale formation much further south and southeast of San

Francisco promises the next potential miracle, containing two-thirds of all

known shale oil deposits in the United States, a possible 15.4 billion barrels

of oil, enough to power every aspect of the entire nation for three full


But there could also be a price, one that might last many decades, just

as the original 49ers and their Gold Rush hydraulic strip mining techniques left

tons of mercury in Mother Lode streams. A century and a half later, levels of

toxic mercury in fish and amphibians caught there remain


The gold mining of the 19th Century created jobs and made

fortunes for bankers, clothiers and many others. Similarly, hydraulic fracking

of shale oil and natural gas in North Dakota, to name just one area, has spurred

a boom.

But fracking – which sees a combination of water and chemicals injected

into the ground to loosen oil and gas previously locked in rock formations – has

also created problems with ground water supplies in West Virginia and


Nature magazine reported last October that “A range of hydrocarbons

showed up in the deep (Wyoming) wells, as did some synthetic organic chemicals

associated with fracking fluids and drilling activities. The (federal)

Environmental Protection Agency also … analyzed the evolution of the pollution

plume to determine that groundwater seems to be migrating upward, suggesting

that the source of contamination came from the gas production


Encana Corp., a Canadian energy producer operating wells near Pavillion,

Wyo., maintains there is no proof drilling operations are to blame, but offers

no other explanation for the contamination.

The conflict simmering there could preview what’s to come in California.

In fact, fracking could turn into a classic economy vs. environment struggle,

with the oil lobby and conservative activists already pushing for large-scale

shale oil and gas development. Not that fracking is new to California. In

locations as diverse as Long Beach, Inglewood, Santa Barbara and Kern County, it

has been used for decades with little regulation and few incidents. But never on

the scale now in sight.

"Californians have a choice,” opined the conservative California

Political News and Views blog the other day. “We can raise taxes, kill jobs and

force government into higher deficits. Or we can drill for oil, using fracking,

have a miracle and save the state.”

For sure, fracking brings massive potential upsides, starting with the

fact that the Monterey Shale deposits could bring instant properity to towns in

the west San Joaquin Valley now best known for their ultra-high unemployment

rates. That happened in North Dakota, and there are no reports yet of

contaminated drinking water there.

Said a mid-March study from the University of Southern California,

“Drilling in the Monterey Shale formation may add as much as $24.6 billion in

state and local tax revenue and as many as 2.8 million jobs by 2020…significant

migration of skilled workers into California would occur. More job gains can be

captured by Californians with appropriate education and training.” That study

was partially funded by the oil industry.

Exploiting the Monterey formation also could lessen pressure for oil

drilling along the coast, where the ongoing moratorium on new wells is

periodically threatened. It could also assure a long-term supply of natural


On the other hand, there’s that

precedent from the Gold Rush. No one is sure how long pollutants from fracking

might stay in underground aquifers, nor how far they might


So Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, who authored the

landmark 2006 greenhouse gas reduction law behind the state’s new cap-and-trade

program for fighting climate change, now wants a comprehensive state study of

fracking to be completed by 2015. A bill she’s pushing would also require

drillers to inform nearby property owners a month ahead of any fracking

operation, as well as telling the state about all chemicals to be


Those proposals make sense, as they don’t halt or even put a short

moratorium on any fracking plans. But they do serve notice that California wants

to protect its drinking water and promote a new economic miracle free of Gold

Rush-style harm.

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