Skip to content Skip to footer

Fracking in California Raises New and Old Concerns

Natural gas drilling, August, 2009. (Photo: Helen Slottje /

Part of the Series

On May 15, 2012, Food & Water Watch joined with “Gasland’sJosh Fox, Environment California, Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community and residents of surrounding neighborhoods to call for a ban on hydraulic fracturing in California, presenting the signatures of 50,000 Californians who have signed petitions supporting a ban. The protest was held at the Inglewood oil field in Los Angeles County, the largest urban oilfield in the nation.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is the high-pressure injection of fluids, silica and chemicals into an oil or gas reservoir to fracture the rock, keep open the cracks and allow oil or natural gas to flow back to the well. It is believed fracturing is mainly used in California on depleting oil wells; oil and gas companies operating in the state will soon be releasing more information related to their activities on the industry web site FracFocus.

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the members of which account for 80 percent of the oil and natural gas drilled in California, estimate that WSPA companies fracked 628 oil wells in 2011 – about a quarter of all oil and gas wells drilled across the state that year. Most are listed in Kern County.

Growing awareness of the use of hydraulic fracturing in California has raised concerns around its associated risks as observed in other states, including tremors and water and air pollution. The issue is stirring debate over whether and how fracking should be regulated in California – or outright prohibited.

PXP Fracking Study

The Inglewood oil field covers 1,000 acres in Los Angeles County, California. Oil and gas was found there in 1924, with production peaking a year later, when 176 new wells were drilled. By the 1990s, an average of fewer than four new wells were drilled per year. As oil drilling appeared to be phasing out, people began to settle in the area and now more than one million people live within five miles of the oil field.

In 2006, noxious fumes – methane gas and hydrogen sulfide – leaked out from deep drilling sites in two separate incidents, forcing home evacuations. That was when many residents discovered that oil and gas company Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP), using 3-D imaging to discover where crude oil remained in the state, had ramped up drilling on the field – and near homes – in 2004. After going through various documents, residents found that, in addition to drilling as deep as 10,000 feet, the company was also employing fracking to access the oil.

Resident concerns over the drilling led to lawsuits and a 2011 settlement that improved some regulations in the area and required PXP to provide a study on the “feasibility and potential impacts (including impacts to groundwater and subsidence) of the types of fracturing operations PXP may conduct in the Oil Field,” due this summer.

The PXP study is seen as potentially addressing the lack of information collected and provided by Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) on the use of fracturing in the state.

Defining Hydraulic Fracturing

There appears to be an evolving debate over how to define hydraulic fracturing in the state, which would affect proposed rules and regulations.

Facing increasing questions, DOGGR circulated an official fact sheet in December 2010 stating that fracking in California is “not common,” “limited” and only “occasionally used for a brief period.” A revised fact sheet, posted from May 2011 stated, “the division does not believe that fracking is widely used in California.”

In February 2012, Environmental Working Group (EWG) researchers released documentation showing that hydraulic fracturing had taken place in at least six California counties: Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Ventura, going back to 1953.

The California Department of Conservation (DOC) now states on their web site that hydraulic fracturing is occurring in California, but is different from much of the US: “To date, the Division is aware of very little, if any, fracturing of horizontal shale gas wells in California of the type performed in other parts of the United States. Most of California’s oil and gas production to date has been from vertical wells into traditional oil and natural gas reservoirs.”

According to a DOC Fact Sheet, “DOGGR has regulations in place for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) utilizing steam flood and water flood injection. Any alternative methods for EOR – such as hydraulic fracturing – would require additional regulations and/or statutes.”

EOR is regulated in the state as a form of underground injection. The state received primacy for its underground injection control (UIC) program as long as it meets minimal federal UIC regulations designed to prevent potential sources of ground water contamination. Yet, the state’s UIC program has been under recent scrutiny.

Underground Injection Versus Well Stimulation

In June 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency evaluated how the California DOGGR “oversees and manages the permitting, drilling, operation, maintenance and plugging/abandonment of Class II [underground injection wells].” The federal regulators found that the California agency’s program did not meet a number of federal requirements, and in July 2011, sent a letter to the division highlighting a variety of “program deficiencies that require more immediate attention and resolution.”

In November 2011, Governor Brown fired Derek Chernow, then head of the Department of Conservation, as well as Chernow’s deputy, Elena Miller, after they refused to relax UIC regulations and, instead, generated a memo critical of underground injection and said relaxing regulations would violate federal laws. The memo raised broader health and safety concerns about the state’s oversight over methods for increasing oil flow from depleting wells.

Shortly thereafter, Brown installed Mark Nechodom, who sided with Brown and relaxed the oversight over underground injection.

The California Independent Petroleum Association has maintained that fracking is not a form of underground injection and, thus, not subject to its regulations and permits. Instead, the Association argues that fracking is a well stimulation technique that is covered by the state’s regulation of well casings on producing wells.

This appears to be the position that the state DOC is taking. DOC was asked if hydraulic fracturing is a form of enhanced oil recovery and a form of underground injection and how such a distinction might affect regulations? Don Drysdale of DOC’s Public Affairs responded, “Hydraulic fracturing is considered a well stimulation technique and is conducted on production wells, not injection wells. Regulations would differ in a number of respects [from underground injection], some of which we are still exploring.”

If hydraulic fracturing were considered a form of underground injection, it would bring in a host of review and testing requirements along with federal oversight, according to a California DOC fact Sheet. Another DOC fact sheet states that “injection project permits often include conditions, such as approved injection zones, allowable injection pressures and testing requirements. State regulations were designed to ensure that injected fluids are confined to the project area and zone and that formation pressures are not exceeded to the extent that damage occurs.”


Many in the state would like rules and guidelines specific to hydraulic fracturing due to its high use of water and novel mix of chemicals, many of which are listed as hazardous by the federal government.

The high volume of water used in fracturing and the returning wastewater has led to an increase in disposal injection wells in the country. Injection into some drilling wells has been linked to tremors in Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma, according to various studies.

Drysdale said that California is different because – compared to areas like the Marcellus Shale – less water is used in the fracturing process and less produced water returns, meaning fewer disposal wells would be needed.

The hydraulic fracturing process itself has been linked to small earthquakes in England; hydraulic fracturing is believed to result in smaller tremors than wastewater disposal, because it occurs over a shorter period of time with less water.

Another concern is wastewater treatment and the potential for spills. In 2009, a jury in Kern County found that 96 million barrels of wastewater from drilling had leached from holding ponds onto a farmer’s property, resulting in contamination of the aquifer beneath his land. It is unknown if any of the wastewater came from hydraulic fracturing.

California Director of Governmental Affairs Bill Allayaud of EWG worries about wastewater kept in percolation ponds – which include both lined and unlined waste pits, raising risks over air pollution from volatile organic compounds and groundwater leaching.

Another concern – and a large area of contention – is that the chemical-laced water from the fracturing process will eventually migrate to aquifers and contaminate them, either from well casing failures or cracking, or from the upward movement of fluids through faults and fractures.

The Legislature is starting to address some of the concerns around the lack of information, debating bills on advance notice of fracking activities to neighbors and disclosure of some of the chemicals used. DOGGR has been holding a series of public workshops to gather input on proposed fracking regulations.


Some counties have already taken action.

After a Monterey County administrator approved a permit for oil and gas company Venoco to drill nine exploratory wells using hydraulic fracturing, a local land trust appealed. The issue was set to be heard at an October 26, 2011, planning commission meeting, but Venoco pulled its permit application after the commission released a meeting agenda noting that it recommended supporting the appeal and denying the project.

In June 2011, Los Alamos rancher and vineyard owner Steve Lyons contacted Santa Barbara County officials after discovering that Venoco had fracked a well on his property. After a series of public hearings and forums, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors decided unanimously in December 2011 that companies planning to use the process would have to apply for a special permit from the County Planning Commission.

In 2012, it was reported that PXP was again using fracking in the Inglewood oil field. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the community that surrounds the oil field did not know about the 2012 test fracking until March 9, after the fracking was complete. According to FracFocus, the two vertical wells were fracked in September 2011 and January 2012. PXP used up to 168,000 gallons of water laced with chemicals in one well to a depth of about one and a half miles.

PXP has said the jobs were necessary for its fracking study as part of the 2011 settlement over its drilling, but environmental groups say the industry could have relied upon other data.

Residents like Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community are concerned that fracturing will eventually become more common beneath their homes and neighborhoods, leading the group to join the May 15 call for a statewide ban.