Fracking: Inside a BLM report, environmental impacts, and the public’s response

May 30, 2019

Fracking has been a hot topic ever since the Trump administration released an environmental review about the possibility of expanding hydraulic fracturing on federal lands in Central California. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held three public meetings on the review; on May 21 in Bakersfield, May 22 in San Luis Obispo and May 23 in Santa Barbara.

This segment contains two interviews: In the first, KVPR reporter Kerry Klein sheds light on what this document says and does, and shares how San Joaquin Valley residents have responded. 

Want to submit a public comment to the BLM? Do so by June 10 here: https://bit.ly/2QwXWiR

In the second, Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback explains some fracking basics, including what is and isn’t known about the technique's impact on the environment. He agrees that many concerns about fracking's effects on the environment are well founded—scientific studies have established a link between the practice and earthquakes, contamination of some groundwater sources, and air pollution emissions—but also argues that fracking can be done responsibly with the proper regulation and oversight.

Listen to the audio for the full interviews, or read on for a few highlights:

By the numbers:

  • In 2017, District 3, which includes San Luis Obispo County oil fields plus those in Lompoc and the Santa Maria Valley, produced 15% of the state's oil. (source: California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources) 
  • In 2017, Kern County produced 71% of the state’s oil, and 70% of its natural gas. (source: California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources)
  • In 2018, San Luis Obispo County produced 6% of the state's solar-powered electricity.  (source: California Energy Commission
  • In 2018, Kern County also produced 51% of the state’s wind-powered electricity, and 21% of the state’s solar-powered electricity. (source: California Energy Commission)
  • Since 2015, when hydraulic fracturing began being permitted by the state, 1,018 wells have been fracked in California. (source: California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources)
  • Approximately 150 more permits for hydraulic fracturing have been granted, though work on those wells has yet to begin. (source: email communication with the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources)
  • Statewide, another 1,200 wells are used for wastewater disposal. This process, which involves injecting back into the ground the non-petroleum fluids produced during drilling, has been more commonly associated with induced seismicity than hydraulic fracturing activities have. (source: email communication with the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources)
  • In 2016, oil and gas production, including but not limited to fracking, was responsible for about 20% of the PM2.5 and 17% of the volatile organic compounds emitted by all stationary sources in the state. (source: California Air Resources Board)
  • It’s difficult to pin down whether fracking has polluted groundwater in California, but an April 2019 report from the California Water Resources Control Board did find that some chemicals from well stimulation techniques have mingled with groundwater. However, the report is short on details about where, which chemicals, and whether they were used during fracking or other well stimulation activites.

The BLM is seeking public comment on a document related to hydraulic fracturing on approximately 1.6 million acres of federal land in Central California.

  • The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was published in April.
  • The review found no significant impacts associated with making approximately 1.6 million acres of federal land in Central California available to hydraulic fracturing associated with oil and gas development.
  • 400,000 acres includes public land and another 1.2 million acres includes land in which the BLM owns subsurface mineral rights.
  • The analysis has no bearing on land owned privately or managed by the state, or on land already permitted for oil and gas production.
  • This document is the result of a 2015 lawsuit by environmental groups arguing that an earlier BLM environmental document’s failure “to take a ‘hard look’ at the environmental impacts associated with oil and gas extraction” and “to consider meaningful alternatives to continued extraction” violated federal environmental law.

The BLM’s review didn’t find zero environmental impacts – just none that are so significant that they can’t be mitigated.

  • This document and the 2014 document it supplements acknowledge that fracking in this region would involve some environmental impacts, including disruption of the ground, some air emissions, a risk of groundwater contamination if wastewater isn’t disposed of properly, and a risk of disrupting some tribal assets.
  • However, most of these would be insignificant, because the analysis estimates only 0 to 4 wells would be fracked on this land each year. Many worry this is an underestimate. According to Gabe Garcia, field manager of the BLM’s Bakersfield field office, the estimate is based on data on oil and gas development over many decades on other federal lands. The Bakersfield field office oversees public lands in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and six other counties. 
  • “When we look back, there's not a lot of wells that are drilled from those new leases. Most of the drilling that occurs on our field area is on existing leases, leasing that has been around for 30 to 70 years. And so this analysis focuses on those lands that are available, but unleased, and so we don't feel that there's going to be a huge rush.” –Gabe Garcia, field manager of the BLM’s Bakersfield field office

Fracking won’t happen overnight, if at all.

  • This is not a regulatory document, just an environmental one. Many more steps are needed before fracking could happen on this land: After the current public comment period, which ends June 10, the BLM plans to release a final EIS later this year, and even if it also reports a finding of no significant impacts, any oil and gas producer seeking to hydraulically fracture on this land would still need to follow local and state regulations for acquiring the land and seeking a permit to operate there.
  • “This is a step in the process, it's a 30,000-foot look at: Are there impacts that we can't mitigate for? We haven't seen those yet, but obviously as part of the public comment period, we are looking for whether there are changes that need to be made.” –Gabe Garcia, field manager of the BLM’s Bakersfield field office

Many Valley residents aren’t reassured by the BLM’s analysis.

  • Roughly 150 people turned up for the BLM’s Bakersfield meeting, most of whom were concerned about big-picture climate change as well as protecting water, air and the environment in their local communities.
  • “What really concerns me is that they really pollute the air, and that can hurt everyone. It doesn’t matter your race, the color of your skin, nothing.” –Saul Ruiz Martinez, a resident of Lost Hills, an unincorporated community in Kern County adjacent to hundreds of oil and gas wells, and the president of the Lost Hills Action Committee
  • “Where I live it’s already one of the worst air qualities in the country. It’s already an environmental disaster. This will make it even worse.” –Fernando Serrano of Porterville

Others argue fracking, and oil and gas production in general, can be done responsibly.

  • Not everyone at the Bakersfield meeting showed up to oppose the BLM document. A handful, including petroleum industry workers and Kern County employees, publicly defended the industry and its economic benefits. Many were heckled.
  • “We can’t make a mess in our own neighborhood. We have to drink water and breathe air, right? So it’s just in simple self-interest that you’ve got to take care of things.” –Tom Creswell, a chemical engineer in Bakersfield
  • Lorelei Oviatt, Director of Planning and Natural Resources for Kern County, on the environmental regulation imposed on oil and gas permits: “It is comprehensive, it includes air mitigation that they’ve never had to pay for before. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in air mitigation for every well. You would ask, why would an oil industry do that? Because, in California, they do have their backs up against a wall. So they want to be well regulated, because they can’t move the oil.”

Also at issue: BLM’s accountability to the public.

  • None of the BLM’s three public meetings on its environmental review were recorded; therefore, the agency didn’t enter any of the comments from the meetings into the public record.
  • A BLM representative had said ahead of time they’d provide a computer for submitting comments online, but no computer was set up. A BLM representative later told KVPR that the earlier notice was a miscommunication.
  • The agency also didn’t provide a Spanish interpreter, despite many Spanish speakers in attendance.
  • “We’re very upset with this situation, because it just continues doing the things that they want, the way they want, and that’s why not only us but many organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity that have lawyers are already getting ready to file a lawsuit if that’s needed.” –Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network
  • However, Martinez’s organization and others hired a court reporter to transcribe the meeting, which will allow them to enter each comment in writing.
  • In response, Gabe Garcia of the BLM’s Bakersfield field office said the agency doesn’t typically record public meetings. In the past, he says, commenters have complained that their transcribed comments have been mischaracterized—so they stopped doing the practice.
  • “I think there's people that are used to different setups, they're used to counties that have a different protocol, so I can see where they're coming from from that perspective, but I think from our perspective, I think we want to make sure that we're capturing their comments in their entirety and really capturing what they mean. And so that's why we're stressing that you put your comments in writing for us so that we have those for the record.” –Gabe Garcia, field manager of the BLM’s Bakersfield field office