By Jason Mark
The controversial practice of fracking is just something that happens in the woods of Pennsylvania or the empty stretches of the Mountain West, right? … Right? Think again. Fracking, once a purely rural phenomenon, may be coming to a city or suburb near you.
The practice of using thousand of gallons of water mixed with sand and caustic chemicals to shatter underground shale formations (the technical term is hydraulic fracturing) first gained notoriety in the dairy country of Pennsylvania and upstate New York. In addition to concerns about methane contamination of their water wells or the disposal of briny, slightly radioactive fracking wastewater, rural folks worried about how the natural gas rush was ruining their bucolic way of life . The drilling came with strange smells, noise pollution, light pollution from the illuminated well pads, and a dramatic increase in large truck traffic on backcountry roads. Deer hunters in Pennsylvania complained that drilling operations were ruining their autumn pastime. In Wyoming — a place famous for its long distance vistas — measurements of ground level ozone have been worse than smoggy Los Angeles due to the massive amounts of gas drilling. As an impressive investigative series on fracking by NPR demonstrated, many people who live next to fracking wells find the co-existence too close for comfort.
Now imagine those concerns translated to suburban or urban areas with much higher population densities. Geologic formations don’t respect zoning ordinances, and some significant fossil fuel deposits are located underneath major cities. Parts of Cleveland sit above the gas reserves of the Devonian Shale, while Buffalo lies on top of the Utica Shale and Little Rock above the Fayetteville Shale. Oil and gas firms are, naturally, eager to tap into those deposits — and that’s setting up a showdown with city residents who aren’t enthusiastic about having a drilling pad for a neighbor.
See, for example, the turmoil in Los Angeles County, where a company called PXP is hoping to expand its fracking operations at the Inglewood oil field. The site isn’t anything like the rustic woodlands of Pennsylvania. Located in an incorporated area between Culver City, Baldwin Hills and View Park, the 1,100-acre spread is the largest urban oil field in the US. More than one million people live within five miles of the hundreds of wells there. The field’s productivity had been on a steady decline until PXP started using fracking methods around 2003 to get at the estimated 50 percent of petroleum reserves that are inaccessible through more conventional drilling methods.
The practice went mostly unnoticed by area neighbors until January 10, 2006 — when a fracking accident at the Inglewood field released a cloud of toxic fumes and forced the evacuation of some residents of Baldwin Hills and Culver City. Last year, residents settled a lawsuit with PXP that, among other things, calls for closer air monitoring, noise abatement, and a reduction of the total number of wells from 600 to 500 by 2028.
But the settlement still allows for PXP to frack at least 30 new wells a year, and many neighbors remain nervous. One concerned resident is Paul Ferrazzi, a movie cameraman and Culver City resident who heads a group called Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. When asked why he is worried about increased fracking at the Inglewood field, Ferrazzi rattled off what have become the usual criticisms of hydraulic fracturing: “ground and surface water contamination … the use of large amounts of the precious resource of water in drought-prone California, the use of chemicals that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and possible airborne human exposure.”
Ferrazzi has another worry that is an especially sensitive issue in California — “increased seismicity in a heavily faulted area.” A recent study has demonstrated a connection between fracking and minor earthquakes, and has fueled LA area residents’ concerns about how the Inglewood fracking could trigger a quake. The oil field is named for the Newport-Inglewood fault that bisects the area. According to FEMA, the fault is capable of generating a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. (In comparison, the last major earthquake in LA, the 1994 Northridge quake, measured 6.4 on the Ricther scale; 57 people died in that tremor, which caused about $20 billion in damage.)
A spokesperson for PXP declined to respond to Ferrazzi’s concerns, and instead directed me to the website www.inglewoodoilfield.com to learn more about the company’s plans.
Tupper Hull, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association (of which PXP is not a member) was more forthcoming. “Hydraulic fracturing is a technology that has been used in California for some 60 years,” he told me. “It’s been used principally for oil production. The technology is fundamentally no different [from gas drilling], but the scale and size can be different. In 60 years, no one has claimed or identified any environmental risk with hydraulic fracturing in California. That is the salient fact that people need to consider.”
I asked Hull about the emerging science connecting fracking with increased seismic activity, and he said: “Well, again, for 60 years this activity has been going on, and no one has ever suggested it has caused an earthquake. The fact that some [seismic] activity has taken place in some areas with entirely different geology doesn’t strike us as a compelling reason to launch some big campaign in California.”
Hull was referring to an effort by the fracking critics at Food & Water Watch to ban the practice in California, just as Vermont recently did. California officials are in the process of sifting through the various claims and counterclaims of fracking opponents and proponents. The state’s Department of Conservation is hosting workshops across California this summer to take public comment on the practice of hydraulic fracturing and to help lawmakers rewrite the state’s regulations covering the procedure.
As they reconsider the state’s fracking regulations, California officials might want to look at the experience of Fort Worth, Texas — the epicenter of urban fracking.
Photo credit: ProgressOhio
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