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Unregulated Fracking for Decades? Why California May Be a Disaster Waiting to Happen

It appears fracking has gone virtually unregulated in California for decades and now lawmakers are pushing back with legislation to expose the truth.

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Editor's Note: Check out AlterNet's new special coverage page on fracking.

Thanks to the smoking gun of Josh Fox's sobering documentary Gasland, hydraulic fracturing has finally entered our renewable news cycle. Yet despite poisoning groundwater, freeing methane and literally creating earthquakes back east, fracking has a visibility problem in California.

The situation became less clear after a recent investigative report from DC-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group explained that California has experienced 60 unregulated years of widespread fracking, whose technical methods and geographical locations in the seismically active state exist outside of the public purview. It got darker after Governor Jerry Brown's administration wiped the state government's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources ( DOGGR) Web site of fracking fact-sheets and documents. Good luck finding anything about fracking on the governor's official site either.

"Since our report came out, the Brown administration hasn't been happy with it," Bill Allayaud, EWG's California director of government affairs, told AlterNet by phone. "They said we quoted their meetings but left out important quotes. But I don't know what we left out, or how we could shine a better light on the situation. We've been trying to work with them now for over a year."

There has also been a great disappearing act. According to Allayaud, gone is the issue's main page, an account of fracking in other states, as well as what he calls an "inaccurate and misleading factsheet about fracking in California." Gone also is a copy of a letter sent by the state in response to questions from Senator Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica), chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, whose rebuffed inquiries about the extent of California fracking inspired assembly bill 591 ( AB 591), currently at the center of a tug-of-war between the interested citizenry and an industry that seems desperate to avoid transparency.

Punch the term "fracking" into DOGGR's search today and you'll receive a white screen with the perhaps accidentally ironic query " Did you mean: cracking" in response. That's probably funny to even most Californians, whose fault-laced state is due for its next catastrophic earthquake, but it doesn't inspire confidence that DOGGR is taking fracking seriously.

"No word on that, sorry," DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale told AlterNet via email when asked for clarification on the division's online document scrub, or whether they will be replaced or upgraded. Drysdale also explained that DOGGR doesn't have regulations requiring that operators report when, where and how they use hydraulic fracturing to stimulate production. He also said that information from DOGGR regarding fracked wells in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta gas fields near shallow groundwater is "not available, and that "we do not have records" of offshore fracking operations in the Long Beach-Santa Barbara drilling area.

"However, the City of Long Beach has its own oil and gas department and may have some information," he added. "We recently began to request that operators voluntarily report their hydraulic fracturing operations ( PDF) to FracFocus, a public Web site run by the Groundwater Protection Council and Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission."

This Kafkaesque labyrinth doesn't exactly inspire confidence that DOGGR "has regulations designed to ensure well integrity and to protect underground resources," as Drysdale claimed to AlterNet. If it did, there's a good chance that AB 591 wouldn't exist in the first place. That law proposes to legislatively define the fracking technique and disclose its "chemical constituents," recognize its "long history of its application within the state," evaluate its impact on California's natural resources and "geologic and seismic complexity," disclose its sources and amounts of water used and relay any data on "recovery and disposal of any radiological components." That a bottomless well's worth of disclosure demands for a regulatory regime professing to do its job just fine, thanks.

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