Lack of transparency for the controversial practice raises major concerns for locals
By Natalie Cherot 12/13/2012
In the summer leading up to Hurricane Sandy, crowds surrounded the state capitol at Albany, N.Y. They wanted to know what would happen in case of a natural gas leak, or a bigger natural gas disaster, to their drinking water. What sparked them? Many had seen the footage of water so contaminated from natural gas frack drilling that it turned brown or caught fire. These water debacles sparked a nationwide movement against natural gas fracking. Fewer people know about fracking in California, and the anti-fracking movement is smaller, but the tide has turned since the time when natural gas was considered a safer alternative energy.
The days when oil companies could find enough oil through conventional drilling are long over on the Central Coast. Drillers cannot get oil trapped tightly in the shale the older ways. It is trapped in rock and has to be coerced out through fracking. Now they need an Olympic-size pool’s worth of water infused with chemicals to splinter the rock and discharge the oil from it. They drill a hole, lay a pipe, and drop a bomb where it explodes and tears into the pipe. Making its way down through the pipe hole are sand and chemical water at such force that it splinters the shale and dislodges the oil from it. Central Coast frack drilling can tunnel down a mile and through the water table. Scientists are split on whether fracking can contaminate our drinking supply or cause earthquakes. Wastewater composed of toxic, safe and unknown chemicals is injected into a well and pushed down thousands of feet, where it builds pressure. That pressure under the earth could be a problem.
Oil company executives can describe the thick and sticky shale oil with the same kind of loving tenderness and cravings as any Central Coast reckless wine sipper. Washington and Sacramento have simultaneously fed and regulated the thirst for it. The Dick Cheney-created Halliburton loophole made fracking exempt from much EPA regulation and from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This means frackers do not have to disclose the chemicals they use. Drillers in California are not required to notify landowners or residents who utilize nearby water sources of their intent to frack. This lack of transparency has been a sore spot for the often-locked-in-conflict local farmers, commercial fishing industry and environmentalists who now find themselves allied in the battle against fracking’s quest for water. Because so little transparency exists, rumors swirl around the where and when of offshore fracking.
The view from McGrath State Beach
Last June, fresh off the primary election, local campaigning Democrats staged a press conference for Oxnard’s McGrath Beach, which was reopening after being closed for lack of funding following Department of Parks and Recreation’s sordid fund hoarding. Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, who was running for re-election for the State Assembly district stretching from Santa Barbara to parts of Oxnard, took advantage of the news cameras and changed from an orange T-shirt into a full wetsuit and bright-yellow boogie board, walked into the ocean, and rode the whitewash of the small choppy waves for more shoots. What the camera could not capture was the crossing of slant- and horizontally-laid oil pipes underneath the waves, chemical injection wells on federally regulated oil rigs beyond the white wash, and the Channel Islands thrust fault capable of producing a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. From Williams’ vantage point, he could see the reeds and fences hiding more oil company chemically injected and disposal wells. If he had walked south down the beach past McGrath Lake, he would have found Well 1218 producing more than 32,000 barrels so far this year alone.
Williams splashed around over one of the county’s major access points to the oil-abundant underground geological development called the Monterey Shale. This now-commercialized piece of geological property encompasses parts of Ventura, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. Tim Marquez, president of Venoco, told the Oil & Gas Financial Journal that “We knew that our future efforts were going to be focused on the Monterey Shale.” Venoco literature claims the company has explored the shale since 1997.
Fracking is a new frontier and Marquez embraces its Wild West nature and its financial and environmental riskiness. The Monterey Shale is about the closest thing an energy company can get to a new oil frontier on the Central Coast in decades. But like the old Wild West, the federal government is still bankrolling while letting companies use its national forests and federal waters.
According to a Venoco report, the company is leasing 380,000 acres in California valued at $1.4 billion. It claims that it has already devoted millions of dollars into setting up new wells and exploring the shale, including the Sockeye field offshore from McGrath Beach. Evidence points to more local shale in its future. Venoco recently advertised for a Monterey Shale expertise job for its Carpinteria office.
What wells has Venoco fracked so far? The company dodges that question. The anti-fracking movement has grown large enough to put oil companies on edge. Calls to Venoco were not returned. But just two years ago, the mood was different. Scarlett Johansson was not hosting celebrity screenings for Gasland, the anti-fracking movie that had not yet won an Academy Award. New York farmers, chefs, wine connoisseurs and environmentalists had not yet joined to push New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat, to regulate fracking. Matt Damon was not releasing an anti-fracking movie called Promised Land that he would use as his next Oscar platform.
But in the more frack-friendly year 2010, Venoco’s promotional literature claimed it had fracked and horizontally drilled one well and acidized a second to get to the shale offshore from McGrath Beach. Nestled in federal waters between Oxnard and Santa Cruz Island is Platform Gail. The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center found that Venoco fracked Platform Gail in Sockeye offshore. Where did the wastewater from the offshore frack go? What was the chemical composition? So far, the only two institutions likely to know for certain are Venoco and a few of the federal regulatory bureaucracies such as the Bureau of Ocean Management or Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. But none is informing the public.
As for spills and water contamination, frack watchers are still trying to get at the chemical formulas of fracking fluid. A 2005 Venoco document reveals XC polymer, a xanthum gum manufactured by Halliburton. Reporters from the nonprofit investigative unit Propublica found hazardous chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, kerosene, hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloric acid, formic acid and lead. Researchers at the State University of New York at Albany found radioactive materials such as uranium, radium and radon in tests of fracking wastewater. The National Resources Defense Council found a chemical connected to cancer development, arsenic. The Breast Cancer Fund has reported on the risks for breast cancer from toluene and endocrine-disrupting compounds such as phthalate DEHP found in fracking fluid. EPA studies show that toluene can cause spontaneous abortion. Then there is the question that remains of how the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical wastewater are disposed of.
According to the Environmental Defense Center, Venoco fracked platform Gail in Sockeye field in the Santa Barbara Channel.
According to the Ventura County Star, Venoco spilled 63 barrels of oil in 2010 from Platform Gail, the year following the reported frack job. Ordinarily, a 63-barrel leak is not controversial, but if it includes fracking fluid or its waste, a concern exists. A frack spill is not an ordinary oil spill. When the chemicals get into the water they are difficult to get out. They spread fast and easy, do not easily breakdown, and can cause more health hazards than crude oil.
The acidity of carbon waste through oil spills threatens marine life and commercial fishing. Shellfish can be especially vulnerable to the acidic water that comes with fracking. But it’s not just commercial fishing that fracking can threaten. Venoco’s fracking and well acidization next to the Channel Islands Marine Reserve undermines the mission of protecting marine life and habitats, much as state and national parks protect wildlife on land. Little research exists on the impact of fracking chemicals on ocean life.
Fracking started 60 years ago. So why all the fuss? For many, the newer form of horizontal drilling, that is drilling (that goes down, then across) is what makes the new practices more dangerous than those old Fillmore and Los Padres National Forest frack jobs. With horizontal’s criss-crossing through the water table, it is more likely to cause contamination.
Venoco’s drilling onshore and offshore from McGrath, with its slant and horizontal drilling, has created a regulatory conundrum. Fracking skeptics argue that it is specifically what makes slant and horizontal drilling so appealing. Horizontal drilling can start onshore, then cross to offshore. If there is another spill like in 2010, who regulates this? The federal government? The state? When asked about who regulates a frack job that burrows underneath both land and ocean, Erin Curtis, Federal Bureau of Land Management’s external affairs representative, told me that “Whoever is responsible is who is permitting the oil company. That is who should regulate.” But if Venoco should spill again as it did in 2010, and it pollutes both offshore and onshore, who will be in charge of remedying that? There is no clear answer from Venoco’s office about this question.
The campaigning Democratic candidates also had a wonderful view of the Santa Clara River running through McGrath State Beach and into the ocean. As of August, conversations with the United Water Conservation District, the local agency regulating drinking water coming from the Santa Clara River, revealed that fracking was not even on the radar. This is the agency that must divvy out scarce water.
Aera Energy off McGrath Beach
According to interviews with the California Department of Land Conservation, the state agency in charge of regulating the energy industry, fracking waste fluid can end up in either a waterflood injection well or a water disposal well. While oil and gas companies are not required to report on their fracking chemical compositions, or where they have drilled or injected it into the earth, they do have to get approvals to build wells to dispose of the waste. Wherever one can find an injection or a water disposal well, it is likely some fracking happened nearby.
Two of the biggest global oil companies, Shell and ExxonMobil, teamed up to form Aera Energy. Aera has a new waterflow well near McGrath Beach. This well has only August production on record with the California Department of Conservation. In that month, Aera injected 13,262 barrels of waste.
Our region is what seismologists call seismically active. Several earthquakes have been caused by faults that extend into the Santa Barbara-Ventura ocean basin. We have San Andreas and the Santa Ynez River fault zone to the north, the San Cayetano fault to the east, the offshore Pitas Point near Carpinteria, Red Mountain fault to the east, the Oak Ridge lying on both Ventura and Oxnard, and the offshore Santa Cruz Island and Channel Islands faults to the west. Even the Pacific Operators Offshore LLC (PACOPS), a local offshore driller, in a report to the Federal Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM) admits that all these faults can produce shaking around the wells. The cracking of the shale and the reinjection of waste water back to the strata causes pressure. All this happens on these fault systems.
Aera is no stranger to fracking. Last May, Aera fracked in the mountains above Ventura Avenue. This job used 32,004 gallons of water and drilled down 4,960 feet. Aera admits to using methanol, a common chemical used in fracking and also found in fuel, antifreeze and paint solvent. Inhaling methanol can cause eye irritation, headaches and can be fatal. Ingesting it can produce eye damage or death. Aera’s chemical cocktail also included, boric acid, insecticide and flame retardants.
According to a joint study by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, fracturing of rock has a lower risk of earthquake, but the disposal of the waste fluid into a well is high risk. Where lies an injection well also lies an earthquake risk. According to this study, the hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste do not simply disappear in the earth’s strata. Underground, the waste builds pressure and causes more cracks in the already cracked earth. Conducting the frack jobs on fault zones just exacerbates the earthquake risk.
What makes this study unique is that its researchers and peer reviewers did not possess ties to energy companies. This is not as common as one might expect. A Plains Exploration study claimed fracking in the Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles was safe, but community groups complained that the peer reviewer had connections to oil and gas. Plains Exploration reportedly paid a Texas geologist $400,000 to write a study that showed that fracking did not contaminate ground water. The oil and gas industry gave State University of New York at Buffalo’s geology department $6 million. A new term has been coined to describe these Ph.D.s: frackademics.
Nestled between Carpinteria and Ventura is the Rincon oil field, the desirable piece of ocean property with legendary breaks that has surfers, environmentalists and oil interests competing for its future. Where the state’s Conservation Department gave Venoco safety awards in spite of its 32 violations for not following operating procedures from 2005 to 2010, Greka, with its perishing pipelines and rusting facilities, has the opposite reputation with 21 separate crude oil spills in Santa Barbara waterways from 2005 through 2010. One of the spills included a 67,000-gallon oil spill in early December 2007 followed by an 84,000-gallon spill in 2008. Greka’s poor public image prompted a name change to HVI Canyon Cat last year. The Santa Barbara Independent reported that the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that HVI Cat Canyon failed to implement adequate plans to prevent spills, which is required by the Clean Water Act.
Photo by Matthew Hill
Venoco has operations on the pier off the coast in Carpinteria, where, apparently, work has ramped up recently.
In 2002, the company acquired Rincon Island Partnership. According to California Department of Conservation records, Rincon Island Partnership has at least five waterflood injection wells. Two are drilled either on a slant or horizontally. Greka has a thing for horizontal drilling. One of its holdings is Horizontal Ventures, so it is likely that some of its wells are horizontally drilled.
Venoco and Carpinteria’s uneasy relationship
Venoco has operations in Carpinteria right near the beach and leases the pier that the city owns. Former Carpinteria mayor Richard Weinberg has witnessed increased Venoco activity near his house, a short distance from the pier — “Trucks go by day and night,” he says. Miguel Checa, a member of the board of directors of the advocacy organization, the Carpinteria Valley Association, once only saw a few trucks a day going to the pier a day. Now he notices “six to eight.” Some question whether this means offshore fracking is a fixation of many Carpinteria residents. Buzz spreads around Carpinteria environmental circles that Venoco could slant-drill offshore to get entrance to oil under the city limits, but Nathan Alley, a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center, claims that would be a feat of engineering.
Carpinteria resident Ted Rhodes has had Venoco in his sites since the company created Carpinteria’s 2010 Measure J that would have produced more drilling in the city near the aquifer. His mind is on the municipal water and he has no reservoir of good will for Venoco. The company can bypass local laws by going through federal land management instead of the city.
Weinberg thinks Venoco’s plan is to drill slant or horizontal to reach the oil under the city without having to abide by local laws or answer to local activists. The last time Venoco wanted to dramatically increase drilling through city legislation, environmentalists staged a paddling protest. They jumped in the water and paddled out to sea. The paddlers included Rhodes and Weinberg.
Weinberg calls federal and state land management “weak.” Federal and state land management will not be as open to citizens’ participation. Weinberg may be correct. In October, Alley found that Venoco will drill just north of the city and slant-drill to the oil underneath the city.
The Carpinteria Valley Association hired hydrogeologist from UCSB Hugo Loáiciga to defend against Measure J. Loáiciga publicly testified drilling beneath the city would be detrimental to the aquifer. Although environmentalists point to the dishonesty of oil companies, the prediction tools that oil companies use could be a factor. Sophisticated oil company mapping has provided innumerable safety gains by predicting a picture of the underground. But all these layers might be more fractured and uniform than the technology shows. The assumption of safety depends on the premise that layers of underground rock tightly hold the injected chemicals. But the underground may be more fractured and cracked than these programs predict. More cracks mean more chemicals moving about.
UCSB: gas to the south, oil to the north
Venoco has had its share of Southern California controversy. It had a run-in with famous local environmentalist Erin Brockovich over fracking at Beverly Hills High right next to the track. Where Pennsylvania may allow fracking right on public university campuses, UCSB has the status of having likely oil fracking directly north and PG&E gas south of the campus. Entering the campus on Highway 217, you can see the natural gas field. It is estimated that 90 percent of natural gas wells are fracked.
Elwood lies just north of the campus. Venoco claims, in a 2010 business magazine, to have been drilling to the Monterey Shale at Elwood since 1999. It only took a few short years for this exploration to transform into abundant shale oil collection. In 2007, Venoco wrote to the California Department of Conservation to say it will be injecting waste from the Elwood well offshore to platform Holly. In that letter, Venoco writes, “We have three wells injecting the produced water back to the Monterey Shale.” Produced water is the wastewater that is laden with chemicals. Venoco also claims to have injected this produced water on Holly beginning April 2006. Platform Holly has been productive. The state lands commission filed a lawsuit last year claiming Venoco owes the state $9.5 million in royalties.
Venoco ships some of this waste to a water disposal well north of UCSB, in between the posh Bacara resort and the Sandpiper Golf Course. The company has another water disposal well offshore in front of UCSB. It has disposed of 1.3 million barrels of wastewater from the beginning of 2012 through August.
The EPA classifies an oil company’s waste disposal well as class II disposal. If some of the fracking chemicals were to be used instead in manufacturing or farming, the EPA would give it a more hazardous classification. Oil and gas companies have exceptions other industries do not.
Bureaucracy and politicians
Checa and Weinberg joined 173 other people in a May 20 meeting at Ventura County Government Center on fracking, organized by the state’s Department of Conservation. It was public comment time before the state came out with a draft of fracking rules to be passed around to various environmental groups and the industry. Erin Curtis, the spokeswoman from Federal Bureau of Land Management, says, “We are in rule-making on hydraulic fracturing.” Like the state Department of Conservation, that office is inviting public input before making draft regulations. Alley recommends that locals get involved and work toward making fracking transparent. Of course it is much easier to be part of the rulemaking process if you are a mover and shaker at environmental organizations. For ordinary folks, like those at Albany, N.Y., protesting is the only way to get their voice heard.
Ventura County will have to address protecting agriculture, water and property despite the revenues received from oil companies. As for rising oil prices, more local drilling does not translate into cheaper prices at the pump for Ventura County residents. The fracked oil from underneath our feet gets traded to the highest bidder on the international market just like any other oil.
As for local electoral connections to fracking, only state Sen. Fran Pavely, D-Agoura Hills, has put fracking front and center on her agenda, going as far as writing a bill requiring drillers to notify nearby property owners before fracking. Though one bill died earlier this year, Pavley has reintroduced another bill this month that would regulate fracking, which includes advance notice to neighbors of planned fracking and disclosure of the chemicals used in the process. State Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, had Venoco as a client during his lobbyist days. Venoco later joined ExxonMobile in contributing to his campaign. Recently retired Carpinteria City Councilman Joe Armendariz started a consulting firm. His new client is Western Petroleum Association. Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez, who also attended the McGrath Beach opening, might be the next local leader likely to take this up as an agenda item. The Sierra Club adores her. She earned their admiration for fighting to keep development off Ormond Beach.
On the federal level, ProPublica found that Exxon is pushing for legislation so it does not have to reveal fracking chemicals, but federal regulators have their own agenda. John Romero at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said that office will not be issuing any more federal offshore permits, but is working on environmental studies for offshore wind power. Even if the local and state governments conflict on offshore agendas, the feds are installing more alternative energy regardless of who is in office. As for when this will happen, UCSB biologist Milton Love is already conducting an environmental impact study for the federal government to bring offshore wind power to our region. The Department of Defense has already made plans to develop more wind power on San Nicolas Island.
A few months after the Democratic candidate at McGrath Beach, I asked a ranger about the fracking rumors. “I have heard them,” he says, “but we have cameras. Cameras are all over the park.” But the cameras do not show everything behind the walls of the rigs and wells. So I ask him if he sees anything else bad happening in the park. “Yes,” and then he laughs.