SACRAMENTO –The Brown administration is scrambling to convince an increasingly wary public that state regulators are getting a handle on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil extraction method that can pose a hazard to drinking water.
State environmental officials last week requested that energy companies disclose where they conduct "fracking" operations and what chemicals they inject into the ground to tap oil deposits. They also were considering whether to launch an independent study to assess effects of the practice.
The administration plans to undertake a statewide "listening" tour for public comment on an extraction technique that until now has drawn the greatest attention in the Rocky Mountain West and Northeast, where the discovery of toxic chemicals in drinking water near fracking operations has sparked calls for moratoriums and more regulation.
Regulators have yet to develop rules or reporting requirements for the procedure in California, the fourth largest oil-producing state in the nation. Only 78 of the tens of thousands of oil field injection wells in California, where fracking might occur, are listed on a national fracking registry.
Though officials maintain that existing laws protect the state's drinking water, they acknowledge they have little information about the scale or practice of fracking, causing growing anxiety in communities from Culver City to Monterey. The energy industry is touting the potential of the procedure here to tap the largest oil shale formation in the continental United States.
Mark Nechodom, director of the Department of Conservation, sought to assure lawmakers last week that the state was taking the issue seriously.
"If there's been any impression that [the administration] has dismissed or ignored public concern about fracking, I apologize but it's simply not true," he said. "We share the concern."
Lawmakers were not convinced. At a hearing Wednesday, they blasted the administration's actions as little more than cosmetic tweaks, saying that regulations are long overdue for a state that is widely considered the birthplace of the modern environmental movement. Separately, they are pushing legislation that would require oil companies to disclose where they employ the procedure, what chemicals they use and how much water they pump. The bill stalled last year after objections by the energy industry.
"What the Legislature clearly has been saying we want is information and regulations," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). "And we don't have either."
The lower house's subcommittee on resources tabled the administration's request for an additional 18 positions in the state's oil and gas agency, noting that 35 positions had already been approved in the last two years, in part to develop fracking regulations. The state's nonpartisan legislative analyst reported that 13 of those slots remain vacant.
"To kind of just go along and wait for a study…really isn't acceptable," said Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey). "There are other states who have prevented fracking from taking place until they have put those regulations into place. So why would California allow this to be happening without regulations?"
Nechodom, a former senior adviser and scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told lawmakers he was "a bit surprised" that California had no regulations on fracking, a common procedure at wells statewide, when Brown appointed him conservation director in December.
Still, he said, crafting rules would be tricky.
Monitoring fracking in oil fields would require more staff in an agency that Nechodom described as short-handed and overworked. And though he said California's geology makes fracking safer here than in the Rocky Mountain West or Northeast, regulators are at the whims of energy companies when it comes to detecting damage.
"The industry outguns us in information by orders of magnitude, with their 3-D modeling," Nechodom said. "We simply have to take their word for it unless we develop some other technique for modeling."
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn., said his trade organization already encourages oil companies to post fracking operations on the national registry and was working with lawmakers on disclosure legislation.
Brown has said he plans to visit oil-rich Kern County to meet with energy companies and environmentalists to learn more about fracking. In the meantime, he recently told a conference of renewable energy investors that oil companies have an incentive to be good environmental stewards.
"I don't think any company wants to pollute the aquifer," he said, "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."