Fracking on the Fringes of Orange County, With Little Oversight
Early this month, the Weekly reported the gas drilling practice known as fracking has quietly been occurring around Orange County's borders. For just how long is hard to say, and pinpointing the exact number of companies who have engaged in the practice locally isn't easy.
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What is known is that fracking involves the injection of a top-secret cocktail of toxic chemicals underground to release natural gas and oil, and is believed to be capable of turning water faucets into mini-flame throwers.
In a recent email exchange, Department of Oil, Gas & Geothermal (DOGGR) spokesman Don Drysdale, told the Weekly that while fracking regulations are currently being crafted in California, there is little oversight of the practice; and the few oil companies known to have used fracking, have reported their activities voluntarily. Conceivably, the practice could be occurring throughout the county unbeknownst to residents.
"We can't speculate on how widespread hydraulic fracturing is in any particular area,"Drysdale wrote.
Records maintained by the Department of Conservation show there are more than 32,000 oil wells in District One (which includes Orange County). Of these, there are 26 wells near the county's northern border where fracking has been reported. Most of these are clustered in the hills north of Brea and are operated by Houston-based Linn Energy. Five in Yorba Linda are owned by Columbine and Associates.
State records also show that most of these wells are either idle or plugged, however one, located in the vicinity of Brea canyon, appears active. Whether these sites were fracked yesterday or five years ago is anyone's guess.
"DOGGR doesn't maintain dates or other specific information about the use of hydraulic fracturing," Drysdale wrote.
While people are excited about falling gas prices, which have dropped as the result of increased domestic production, questions loom about the safety of fracking. In 2005, then Vice President Dick Cheney pushed through an energy bill exempting disclosure of fracking chemicals from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
This could prove problematic for the northern and central portions of OC, which sit atop a massive aquifer providing more than 2 million residents with cheap, reliable water.
A first of its kind bill sponsored by State Senator Fran Pavley requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals as well as oversight of the process, has passed the Senate and is currently being considered by the state appropriations committee. The committee is expected to announce its decision later this week.
But while the bill has widespread support, critics including the Sierra Club have called it too weak in forcing oil companies to disclose their activities.
"It would allow people access to the names of the fluids, but we're opposing (the bill) until it allows access to the quantities and concentrations," said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club of California. She explained that her office is working with Senator Pavley to help shape the final draft. Though providing for groundbreaking oversight, she explained in its current form, the bill provides too many protections for oil companies.
"It would set up a hurdle for regular people to monitor what's going on in their water supply," Phillips said.