California to draft regulations for oil and gas fracking
Under pressure from state lawmakers and environmentalists, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration is vowing to develop regulations for hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil extraction method that some say can pose a hazard to drinking water.
California's Department of Conservation released a document late Thursday outlining various steps regulators are taking to address a number of oil and gas issues, including fracking.
The so-called road map says officials plan to develop rules for the procedure, in which operators inject chemical-laced water and sand deep into the ground to break apart rock and release trapped oil and natural gas, after a series of workshops this summer.
The action comes as the Brown administration seeks money in its proposed state budget for additional positions in the state's oil and gas agency. Lawmakers have said regulations for fracking are long overdue for California, the fourth-largest oil producing state in the country and the birthplace of the modern environmental movement.
Until now, regulators had downplayed the need for new rules, arguing that existing law protects the state's drinking water and that fracking here is different from drilling in the Rocky Mountain West, Mid-Atlantic region and Northeast. In California, they said, the procedure is performed for shorter duration with much less water to loosen crude in depleted oil wells.
Nevertheless, regulators acknowledge that they have little information about the scale or practice of fracking in California because the state has no reporting requirements, a fact that unnerved lawmakers in March budget hearings.
"I’m not comfortable when I hear, 'Gee, the modest use we’ve had in the past hasn’t given us any adverse impacts that I’m aware of,' " said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), mocking a witness' testimony. "The reason we’re having the conversation is it’s long since time to acknowledge that there is a growing trend toward the use of this technology, that we don’t really know what the consequences are, and we would be well advised to figure that out sooner rather than later."
The Conservation Department's road map also details efforts to review and update its decades-old regulations for other types of "underground injection," including a form of steam extraction that led to an oil worker's death last year.
Administration officials are set to appear before legislative budget committees next week.
-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento
Photo: Oil wells in Oildale, Calif. Credit: Getty Images