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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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It is also why "DOGGR was raked over the coals" in a March 28 budget hearing "that was more about fracking than anything else," according to Allayaud, who attended. At that meeting, California Department of Conservation (DOC) director Mark Nechodom was rebuffed in his efforts to procure more funding and positions for DOGGR. That fact that he repeatedly assured Assembly members that DOGGR was regulating fracking but was unable or unwilling to disclose the location of any fracked wells or well-casing failures to those members might have had something to do with it. By meeting's end, Nechodom promised to prepare fracking regulations, undertake a scientific inquiry into its practice, and conduct a series of listening sessions in the state.  

Better late than never, but DOC and DOGGR still need to speed the plow. According to a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting's Tia Ghose, both the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club are suing the Bureau of Land Management to prevent fracking on federal lands ( PDF) -- 2,500 "environmentally sensitive" acres in Monterey and Fresno counties have already been leased. The BLM has suggested that it's mostly grazing land that has been leased before but still remains undeveloped, and consoled worriers by explaining that the agency executes environmental reviews in the drilling permit process. 

"Our case is proceeding in the district court on a normal schedule, but there hasn't been any merits briefing or rulings yet," Sierra Club attorney Nathan Matthews told AlterNet. "Nobody from the state has contacted us about this suit. The BLM Web site lists who purchased the leases, but presumably the land could be developed by someone else. Our claim demands that BLM assess these types of risks before proceeding to allow development."

Like DOGGR before them, the BLM's distaste for transparency on an issue as controversial as fracking is counterproductive, and could prove costly in the final analysis if the problems that continue to plague the practice back east migrate westward. But their profit-oriented perspective nevertheless comfortably aligns with the industry itself, which seems all too content to rely on hindsight rather than foresight when it comes to tragedies large and small.

"An original version of AB 591 we had last year asked the industry to map where it was fracking in California, and indicate any active seismic fault within five miles," said Allayaud. The industry's non-profit trade group Western States Petroleum Association "said it wanted that out. When I asked why, the answer I got was, 'Look, if we were causing earthquakes through drilling, injection wells or fracked wells, you would know it. Look how many geophysicists are running around the state looking at earthquakes.'"

That flippant industry response, taken together with those of the California agencies overseeing that very industry, has only galvanized regional opposition. Many more will inevitably follow AB 591 and the joint complaint against BLM if industry and government alike condescendingly assert that everything is under control to a citizenry told too many times to keep its nose out of its own affairs. The fight over AB 591 exists precisely because the industry won't release its fracking data, from the location of its wells to the chemical makeup of its bedrock-fracturing injection cocktails, without rigorous enforcement. 

To play fair, the EWG stripped the mapping requirements near active seismic faults. "We agreed to take it out because the industry is trying to be cooperative," Allayaud told AlterNet. "They're not opposing the bill."

For his part, Allayaud isn't too concerned about California's fault-riddled seismology or inevitable earthquake catastrophes. So far, neither is the United States Geological Service, whose Web site search results on fracking are more extensive than Governor Brown and DOGGR's blank pages. The USGS explains that California's faults are better studied and understood than anywhere else in the nation, and that its populaces are also better prepared for earthquakes large and small. "Hydraulic fracturing has been taking place for many decades in California," the USGS Earthquake Science Center's Art McGarr told AlterNet, "mostly to stimulate oil and gas production in old fields."

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