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Independent Scientific Study on California Fracking Released

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

Oil well in Oildale, CA in Kern County. About 95% of reported hydraulic fractures in California were in the San Joaquin Valley, nearly all in four oil fields in Kern County.

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

California has shallow, vertical fracking wells that require about 140,000 gallons of water per well to extract oil. That’s millions of gallons less than other states. But the fluids contain more concentrated chemicals.

“People have become concerned about hydraulic fracturing based on high volume fracturing from horizontal wells, and we don’t do that," says Dr. Jane Long with the California Council on Science and Technology. The CCST and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory led the study.

"Another way of looking at this would be if California decided to ban what New York banned. It would make no difference in California. We don’t do that,” says Long.

The study, the first independent assessment required under the state's new fracking regulations, found 20-percent of oil production in the state is fracked, and the vast majority occurs in Kern County.

Long says California’s Monterey Formation isn’t likely to be fracked for decades.

“It’s not like in New York where we know the Marcellus Shale goes into New York and we know how to produce the Marcellus Shale because they’ve been doing it in Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc and they know how to do it," says Long. "We don’t really know how much oil is there and we don’t really know what would work to produce it.”

The assessment was based on currently available peer-reviewed studies. The authors say they found gaps in available data, particularly regarding offshore drilling in federal waters. They also found areas where further investigation is needed. Long says shallow wells that are fracked, for example, might be more likely to be connected to aquifers used for drinking water. 

"We don't know if there is a problem but we think it's worthy of further investigation to determine whether the controls on how we're permitting and testing are sufficient to protect the citizens of California," says Long.

The report is only the first volume of a three volume study to examine current and potential well stimulation practices. The second volume will discuss how well stimulation affects water, air quality, seismic activity, wildlife, vegetation, traffic and noise levels. It won't be released until July.

The California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, also released a draft Environmental Impact Report of the new regulations Wednesday.

In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity criticized both reports. It said the draft report from DOGGR focused exclusively on fracking rather than the risks of all phases of drilling and production. The group says the CCST report "does not assess risks."