Water or Oil?

Water or Oil?

Gov. Brown needs to declare a moratorium on fracking in ecologically fragile California

By John Grula 01/16/2014

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California is in the midst of a water crisis.  A Jan. 3 survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, conducted by the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR), found it was only 20 percent of normal. This matches the 2012 readings, making that year and 2013 the driest on record, according to the DWR. 

Closer to home, 2013 was also the driest calendar year on record for Los Angles, where only 3.6 inches of rain was recorded in the downtown/USC area (average annual rainfall in LA is about 15 inches). Pasadena is also experiencing very similar dry conditions. Scientists inform us that California and most of the West is heading into a third straight year of drought.  JPL climatologist Bill Patzert recently told the Pasadena Star-News that he predicts continued dry weather for the state through June. Welcome to the brave new world of climate change in sunny (but very dry) California.

While Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet declared a drought emergency, last month the DWR formed a drought management team. State and municipal agencies across California are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Among the preparations for the ongoing drought is the implementation of water conservation measures. Despite this common-sense policy step, our good governor is poised to sign off on regulations that will allow a massive expansion in the state of water-intensive hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an oil extraction method that has proliferated in recent years.  
The use of fracking around the country has caused a new boom in oil and natural gas production, and so it’s become a juggernaut that many say is unstoppable. However, fracking not only uses huge amounts of water; it also contaminates the water with harmful chemicals, making it unsuitable for any other purposes. The waste water from fracking can also pollute surface ground water sources and shallow aquifers tapped for drinking water.

The waste water recovered from fracking is usually so polluted that it is routinely re-injected deep in the Earth, where it is essentially lost forever. Furthermore, scientific studies have recently shown that this re-injection process can cause earthquakes in regions that are usually seismically inactive. The last thing California needs is a human activity that can increase the risk of earthquakes.

Of course, when the fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) derived from fracking are burned, more carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) is released into the atmosphere, and this will only accelerate global warming and climate change. To the extent our current drought is the result of climate change, we will just be making the situation worse. Gov. Brown simultaneously calling climate change “the world’s greatest existential challenge” and then allowing the expansion of fracking in California is a total contradiction.

As time goes by, more problems associated with fracking are becoming evident. Serious air pollution is one of them. Residents near downtown Los Angeles and USC have suffered from respiratory ailments, headaches and nose bleeds since 2010 after Allenco Energy Co. ramped up production at old oil wells in the area more than fourfold by using fracking and acidification techniques. The situation became so bad that last November federal environmental officers were sickened by toxic vapors as they toured the South LA urban oilfield in question, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times.

At the urging of US Sen. Barbara Boxer and the US Environmental Protection Agency, Allenco voluntarily suspended operations on Nov. 22 and promised to make repairs and modify its operations to mitigate the serious air pollution stemming from its fracking operations.  However, the LA County Department of Health, according to the Times, has expressed doubt the modification plans will succeed and has called for a comprehensive audit of the facility.

The horror stories don’t stop there. As a result of the oil production boom caused by fracking, railroads are now carrying 25 times more crude oil than they were just five years ago.  More than 200,000 barrels per month were imported into California by rail this last summer, a fourfold increase since 2012, according to the Times.  

However, moving oil by rail is only about half as safe as in pipelines, and this is reflected by the fact that in 2013 there were four serious accidents in North America involving trains carrying oil. In the worst incident, last July in Canada, a train with 72 tank cars derailed and plowed into a town, exploded, and killed more than 40 people.

The California oil industry wants to frack the Monterey Shale formation under the Central Valley, which contains an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil. How will this oil be moved around the state? You guessed it — by rail. 
Ah, the joys of fracking: massive water consumption and contamination, more earthquakes, climate change, air pollution, oil train explosions, etc., etc.  Fortunately, Democratic state Assemblyman Marc Levine of Sausalito has written a letter to Gov. Brown, urging him to declare a moratorium on fracking. Unfortunately, our local legislators, state Sen. Carol Liu and Assemblyman Chris Holden, have not yet co-signed Levine’s letter.   They should do so immediately.

What’s more important to the human family, water or oil? I’d choose water any day. 

John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.

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