PolitiCal

On politics in the Golden State

Category: oil drilling

Environmentalists battle federal government over oil leases

The federal government announced Thursday that it has leased nearly 18,000 acres of public land in Northern California for oil and gas exploration, angering environmentalists who fear an uptick in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Many of the 15 parcels in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties overlie the Monterey Shale, the largest oil-rich formation of its kind in the nation. While none of the oil companies involved in the federal auction announced their intentions to use fracking, the energy industry has touted the potential of the technology to tap previously unreachable fossil fuels in the shale formation.

Four firms paid between $2 and $10 an acre, with the federal government netting $104,099 from the leases.

Fracking involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the earth to break apart rock and release crude, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently projected that the process would lead to a sharp rise in U.S. oil production in the coming decades.

Environmentalists, however, have raised concerns about potential environmental and public health hazards, including contaminated drinking water. Unlike other oil-producing states, California does not have disclosure rules for fracking, meaning companies do not have to report what chemicals they inject or where they employ the procedure.

"It’s essentially the lawless Wild West when it comes to fracking in our state, leaving us at the mercy of the oil and gas industry," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity and Kristin Lynch of Food & Water Watch in a statement.

The organizations joined other environmental groups in filing formal protests with the federal Bureau of Land Management, arguing that regulators had failed to consider the potential impacts of fracking in their environmental reviews of the public land.

The energy industry has said oil firms have used the procedure for decades in California without incident.

"The science that is supporting the safety of hydraulic fracturing in California is unambiguous," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. "There is not a single incident that we’re aware of in which hydraulic fracturing has been suspected of causing harm to the environment in California."

ALSO:

California Senate rejects 'fracking' legislation

Protesters head to Culver City meeting to decry fracking

State officials ask energy firms to disclose 'fracking' sites

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

In response to federal audit, oil regulators vow new rules

Inglewood oil field
California oil regulators are vowing to draft new rules and pursue legislation next year to strengthen oversight of "underground injection," a risky method of oil extraction common in the state.

The pledge comes more than a year after the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued an audit that found regulators were not adequately protecting potential drinking water and urged them to tighten extraction standards.

The state's response, released Monday, said the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources had taken steps to correct deficiencies in its oversight program, including adding staff, increasing training and stepping up annual reviews of underground injection projects. Officials also said they developed new policies to ensure the integrity of oil wells.

Still, regulators said they needed to update existing rules to comply with federal standards, including testing requirements for a controversial form of drilling that has been linked to spills, eruptions and a Kern County worker's death. "Cyclic steam" injection, in which a rush of steam heats the ground and loosens oil deposits, yields much of California's crude.

"With changes in oil field practices and advancements in technology, the Division has been slow to change its regulatory framework," said Tim Kustic, the state's oil and gas supervisor, in his response to the federal EPA. "Although the Division has a strong regulatory program, the Division is pursuing greater and more consistent enforcement."

Regulators acknowledged that some energy firms have failed to comply with existing regulations and resisted enforcement efforts.

The federal audit sparked a firestorm last year when top California regulators tightened some permit requirements to comply with EPA standards. Oil companies complained that the stringent rules were killing jobs, and Gov. Jerry Brown fired those regulators, saying they had needlessly stepped up environmental scrutiny and slowed the permitting process.

ALSO:

California Senate rejects 'fracking' legislation

Protesters head to Culver City meeting to decry fracking

State officials ask energy firms to disclose 'fracking' sites

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: Homes overlook the Inglewood Oil Field. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Environmentalists sue California oil regulators over fracking

Homes overlook the Inglewood Oil Field.

A coalition of environmental advocates has filed suit against California oil regulators over the controversial method of oil extraction called hydraulic fracturing, accusing state officials of illegally "rubber-stamping" drilling permits without performing key environmental reviews.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, environmentalists allege that regulators are breaking state law by routinely exempting oil projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, the landmark measure that requires developers to go through a lengthy, public process detailing environmental effects of their projects and how they will be mitigated.

The CEQA scrutiny is critical, they said, because California, unlike other oil-producing states, does not have disclosure rules for "fracking," which involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the ground to tap oil. Energy firms have used the practice here for decades, but regulators only began drafting regulations to govern the procedure this year amid public and legislative pressure.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about potential environmental and public health hazards, including contaminated drinking water. The lawsuit seeks to bar state regulators from approving drilling permits for hydraulic fracturing operations unless they go through CEQA reviews.

"The current lack of oversight is unacceptable and this lawsuit is about getting the information we all need," said Kassie Siegel, of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of four environmental groups who filed the lawsuit.

The California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman said in a statement that regulators typically grant exemptions for projects "where the addition of one more well on land already densely populated with wells does not alter the overall condition of the land."

Legislation that would have required oil companies to disclose where they use hydraulic fracturing and what chemicals they inject into the ground died in the Legislature this year after significant industry opposition.

ALSO:

California Senate rejects 'fracking' legislation

Protesters head to Culver City meeting to decry fracking

State officials ask energy firms to disclose 'fracking' sites

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: Homes overlook the Inglewood Oil Field. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

California regulators take heat over fracking

FrackingSite2

California oil regulators on Wednesday capped a series of seven public meetings on hydraulic fracturing with a Sacramento session, pledging to use thousands of public comments to guide their efforts to write rules for the controversial method of oil extraction.

But environmentalists, community activists and residents argued for a moratorium, blasting state officials for allowing oil companies to use the procedure, more commonly known as "fracking," during the rule-making process without regulations in place. They raised concerns about potential environmental and public health hazards of a procedure that involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the ground to tap oil, including the possible contamination of drinking water.

"Unless there's a way to guarantee no leaks, spills, contamination of water … then we simply can’t take the risk," said Meghan Sahli-Wells, a Culver City councilwoman.

Officials said the state's drinking water was already protected by "robust construction standards" for oil wells but acknowledged the need for more information about fracking in California.

"It is a high priority for the governor," said Mark Nechodom, director of the Department of Conservation.

Unlike other oil-producing states, California does not have disclosure rules for fracking, and energy firms have used the procedure here for decades. State officials said they were focused on the present and committed to drafting regulations this year.

"What’s missing in California right now is the knowledge for us of exactly which wells have been fracked," said Tim Kustic, the state's oil and gas supervisor. "We want to have a better handle on what is being put in the wells."

The state has asked energy firms to voluntarily report that information on a national fracking registry, and officials have said they plan to launch an independent study on hydraulic fracturing in California.

Nechodom said the new rules would be based on science.

"We will not create regulations just because we are scared of something," he said.

ALSO:

California Senate rejects 'fracking' legislation

Protesters head to Culver City meeting to decry fracking

State officials ask energy firms to disclose 'fracking' sites

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: A fracking operation on leased farmland near Dimock, Pa. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Senate panel supports California 'fracking' moratorium

A state Senate panel has approved legislation that would ban the use of hydraulic fracturing in California until regulators write rules governing the controversial procedure
A state Senate panel has approved legislation that would ban the use of hydraulic fracturing in California until regulators write rules governing the controversial procedure.

The legislation, AB 972 by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey), passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Monday on a party-line vote, 5-2. Democrats supported the measure while Republicans opposed it.

Butler has said she is pushing a moratorium on "fracking" because of concerns about the potential environmental and public health hazards of a procedure that involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the ground to tap oil.

Representatives of the energy industry say oil companies have used hydraulic fracturing in California for decades without incident.

Much of the anxiety stems from the fact that, unlike other oil-producing states, California does not require oil companies to disclose where they use the procedure or what chemicals they inject into the ground. State regulators asked firms to volunteer that information in March and are now soliciting public comment on fracking, the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy rule-making process.

In introducing her measure last month, Butler said that was insufficient.

"I think it's fine that they're getting community input, but it's not fast enough and it's not soon enough," she said. "It's a process that needs to be regulated before we're out there doing it."

The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Its prospects are unclear. The legislation faces stiff opposition from the oil industry, which successfully lobbied lawmakers earlier this year to reject a bill that would have required energy firms to notify property owners before using hydraulic fracturing on or near their land.

Monday's vote came on the same day that the GOP-led Legislature in North Carolina voted to lift that state's ban on hydraulic fracturing. According to the Charlotte Observer, lawmakers overturned Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto of a bill that opens the door to shale gas exploration in the state.

Republicans achieved the narrow victory after a Democratic lawmaker pushed the wrong button and voted to override the veto, the newspaper said.

ALSO:

California Senate rejects "fracking" legislation

State officials ask energy firms to disclose "fracking" sites

Brown administration to create regulations for hydraulic fracturing

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento
twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: A fracking operation on leased farmland near Dimock, Pa. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Year later, California oil regulators unsure what caused worker death

OilField
Nearly a year after a Kern County oil worker was sucked underground and boiled to death, state regulators still don’t know what caused the accident and have outsourced the investigation to two leading oil companies.

On Monday, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources released a report simply outlining the circumstances of the worker’s death and subsequent oil spills in the oil field where Chevron and another operator, TRC Operating Co., used an extraction technique called cyclic steaming, in which a rush of steam fractures and heats the ground to loosen crude deposits.

Regulators detailed possible causes, including damaged well casings and previous steam injection, but said the definitive answers would be provided by the oil companies after they did more testing.

According to the agency’s report, Robert David Taylor and two Chevron co-workers were walking in a Kern County oil field last June when they observed a plume of steam coming from the ground.

As they moved closer, the earth opened up and swallowed Taylor. Immersed in a cauldron of oil fluids, he yelled for help as a co-worker tried to reach him -- first by hand, then with a piece of pipe.

His body was recovered 17 hours later.

Among the agency’s key findings was that on-site tools known as tilt meters had recorded the ground moving four times during the week prior to Taylor’s death.

Regulators said they had not asked Chevron whether the data were shared with workers, but a separate investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health earlier this year found that the operator had failed to establish written tilt-meter guidelines for employees.

--Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: Oil wells in Oildale, Calif. Credit: Getty Images

Firms step up fracking disclosure; activists want it banned

Oil field
Oil firms are pledging to step up disclosure of fracking operations in California as the Brown administration and state lawmakers move to write rules governing the controversial procedure.

The Western States Petroleum Assn. on Tuesday released the results of a membership survey showing that major oil companies used hydraulic fracturing on 628 wells in the state in 2011, the overwhelming majority of which were located in Kern County. The information was first reported last month to regulators who requested it amid public and legislative pressure.

California, the fourth-largest oil producing state in the country, does not require oil companies to disclose where they use the procedure or what chemicals they inject into the ground to tap oil deposits. Other states have imposed moratoriums and drawn up rules after toxic chemicals were discovered in drinking water near fracking operations.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., said the state's major oil producers planned to report their California fracking operations on a national online registry called FracFocus by July. On Tuesday, the website listed just 95 wells.

In a letter to regulators, Reheis-Boyd said the fracking survey was part of an industry effort to demonstrate to the state and the public that hydraulic fracturing is "a safe, well-understood and important energy production technology."

The effort comes as legislation that would make disclosure mandatory works its way through the Legislature and activists call for a statewide ban on fracking.

Food & Water Watch issued its own report on Tuesday and staged a news conference in Los Angeles near one of the country's largest urban oil fields to protest what the group called "the large, uncontrolled public health experiment that is unconventional oil and gas development."

“No amount of regulation can make this fundamentally destructive and toxic drilling safe; most certainly not mere notice of where fracking is taking place or the carcinogenic chemicals being used,” said Kristin Lynch, Pacific region director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement.

The petroleum association challenged the report.

"To call hydraulic fracturing a destructive technology ignores the facts and the experience about this technology," Reheis-Boyd said. "We’ve been doing this practice a long time in California, and there has been no documented incident of groundwater contamination."

California lawmakers push for fracking rules

State officials ask energy firms to disclose "fracking" sites

Oil extraction method widely used in California with little oversight

-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento
twitter.com/mjmishak

Photo: Oil wells in Oildale, Calif. Credit: Getty Images

Gov. Jerry Brown says he's studying 'fracking' in California

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday said that he was taking a closer look at a controversial method of oil extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," as he seeks to help California maintain its role as one of the country's top crude producers.

Speaking to business leaders at a renewable energy conference in Goleta on Friday, Brown said he was studying fracking, which oil companies are touting as a potential key to tapping previously unreachable deposits in the Golden State. Later, the governor told reporters that he was planning a trip to oil-rich Kern County to meet with energy companies and environmentalists to discuss the procedure.

"I'll be on top of it," Brown said.

The comments come as lawmakers push legislation and environmentalists file lawsuits over an expansion of the process in California. The procedure has drawn the greatest attention in the Rocky Mountain West and Northeast, where states have debated moratoriums to develop regulations after toxic chemicals were found in nearby drinking water.

While California has yet to draw up any rules on the extraction method, wherein operators inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground to break apart rock and release oil and natural gas, Brown said oil companies have an incentive to be good environmental stewards.

"I don’t think any company wants to pollute the aquifer," he told business leaders, "because we have trial lawyers in California -- and a very vigorous tort system. So I think there’s a certain self-discipline that they can operate with the management of fracking issues."

Brown declined to comment on legislation that would require oil companies to disclose where they frack, what chemicals they use and how much water they pump. He said the state already regulates oil drilling but that he was gathering more information on the procedure.

"I called up one of our lead oil companies and said, 'What’s the story with fracking?' " Brown said. "They said, 'It’s not as bad as the environmentalists say, it’s not as safe as the oil companies say.' "

The governor got a warm reception from business leaders as he boasted about ousting the state's top oil and gas regulators last year over permitting delays for oil drilling.

"I fired the people in charge and now our permits are dramatically up," Brown said. "California is the fourth-largest oil producing state and we want to continue that."

RELATED:

Fracking widely used in California with little oversight

Brown ordered firing of oil regulator who took hard line

Effort to reach California offshore oil drilling deal revived

-- Michael J. Mishak in Goleta

California oil tax ballot proposal filed

Getprev

This post has been corrected. See below for details

Political professionals agree that the biggest threat to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $7-billion tax hike initiative for next November is that so many other people want to crowd the ballot with their own tax proposals that overwhelmed voters will reject them all.

So, get this: As Brown was telling reporters in Sacramento on Tuesday that he needed to convince people to drop those competing tax measures, the chairman of the governor's own political party was filing yet another tax initiative.

This measure would create a 12.5% "severance" tax on oil and gas withdrawn from California. The more than $2 billion it generates would go to higher education and the state's general fund.

"I see no inconsistency between this and the governor's proposal," said John Burton, the state Democratic Party chair and former state Senate leader who filed the language with the attorney general's office.

That's the same John Burton who recently complained at a party in Sacramento that there are too many tax measures headed toward the November 2012 ballot. (Yes, it's also the same expletive-dropping Burton who was a hit on a segment on ‘The Daily Show’ last week.)

Of course, all those initiatives are in the earliest stages, have yet to qualify for the ballot and can still be abandoned. They include a millionaire's tax pushed by progressive groups, a corporate tax hike that would fund "green" projects and an income tax hike to fund K-12 education.

Insiders expect a whirlwind of wheeling and dealing in coming weeks as the governor tries to winnow down the number headed to the ballot. Some energy industry players speculated that Burton's measure is designed to pressure the oil industry into backing Brown's tax initiative. Burton scoffed at that.

"This would be an ongoing source of revenue from an industry that doesn't pay its burden," he said.

[Corrected 3:55 p.m. An earlier version of this post erroneously said Burton complained about excess tax proposals last month. It was on Dec. 1.]

RELATED:

Jerry Brown's tax plan has ample support, poll finds

Podcast: Taxes, union power mark initiative wars

Jerry Brown unveils tax plan on Twitter

-Nicholas Riccardi in Sacramento

Photo: An active oil well next to homes in Windsor Hills.  Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

Gov. Jerry Brown fires state's top oil regulators

Photo: California Gov. Jerry Brown speaking at the capitol Thursday. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated PressGov. Jerry Brown has fired the state’s top two oil and gas production regulators.

On Thursday, Derek Chernow, acting director of the California Department of Conservation, and Elena Miller, head of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, received pink slips from the administration.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, confirmed the removals but declined to provide additional details, saying only that both officials “served at the pleasure of the governor.” Replacing Chernow is Clifford Rechtschaffen, a senior adviser to the governor on energy, environmental and agricultural issues and a former special assistant attorney general under Brown.

The ousters, first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, come as the oil industry spars with state regulators over delays in the permitting process for new drilling projects. According to Bloomberg, the state has granted permits to 14 projects this year out of 199 applications received.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., applauded Brown’s actions, saying the industry has been at loggerheads with state regulators for two years. Miller, the ousted oil regulator, was a former lawyer for the California prison system appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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