OC’s Future Back to The Past
Fracking, Enhanced Oil and Gas Recovery
Enhanced oil and gas recovery is also referred to in more defined terms as secondary, tertiary and even quandary recovery. These techniques are employed when the pressure inside a well drops to levels that make primary recovery no longer viable. Pressure is the key to collecting oil from the natural underground rock formations in which it forms. When a well is drilled, the pressure inside the formation pushes the oil deposits from the fissures and pores where it collects and into the well where it can be recovered.
Fracking on the other-hand is a slang term for hydraulic fracturing. Fracking refers to the procedure of creating fractures in shale and hydrocarbon rock formations by injecting super-hot fluids under high-pressure into cracks to force them to further open. The larger fissures allow more oil and gas to flow out of the shale formation and into the wellbore, from where it can be extracted. Horizontal drilling techniques have also helped this process.
Many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Oil extraction is not a new phenomenon in LA and Orange County (OC). The city of Huntington Beach, for example, has been dotted with oil rigs for decades, some of which even today are within earshot of City Hall and residential neighborhoods. The city’s history for oil extraction dates back to 1920. The number of wells there peaked in 1956 at 1,799, producing 22-mil. barrels of oil that year. Today there are 1,036 active wells in the OC.
Numerous local oil companies are exploring these enhanced oil extraction techniques, with positive results. Signal Hill Petroleum, Inc. (SHP), a Long Beach based oil company which produces over 1-million barrels of crude annually with drilling operations in Los Angeles County, has been obtaining permits in seven Orange County cities to conduct a geophysical survey that could help identify new oil and gas reserves. Many of the old wells that are being surveyed have the potential for enhanced oil recovery which is also called improved oil recovery or secondary recovery.
But the prospect of a new oil driller seeking fossil fuel deposits in a substantial swath of the central and northwestern portions of the county comes at the height of a national debate over the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Signal Hill officials acknowledge that the company is obtaining permits in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Westminster, Garden Grove, Stanton, Cypress and Buena Park and has also received a permit from the county. The company like most today engaged a lobbyist for help, in this case the former Anaheim Mayor, Curt Pringle to help. Pringle’s lobbying firm, Curt Pringle & Associates, has worked with city bureaucracies to obtain the permits. Hiring lobbyist is common practice with all businesses and even non-profits like the NRDC.
Promises of Economic Boom, Worries About the Enviro
Enhanced recovery and fracking is a 70-year old proven process – it’s a very real trigger for an economic boom that will create millions of jobs of all types in this state and nationwide. Fracking was perfected in the late 1990’s.
Also see related article on page 17, CTN Magazine August 2013.
In 2000, the U.S. had 342,000 natural gas – mostly enhanced and fracking wells. By 2010, more than 510,000 were in place – a 49% jump – according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There are just over 25,000 oilfield injection wells operating in the state. Injection wells are used to increase oil recovery and to dispose of the salt and fresh water produced with oil and natural gas.
Fracking has come under intense scrutiny by activist environmentalists for its claimed but unproven environmental impacts. There has been debate as to whether the gas in the groundwater was naturally occurring or whether gas drilling caused the contamination through a leaking well bore.
Though most of the fracking controversy has played out in places like New York and Pennsylvania, it is also a major issue in California. The Monterey-Santos shale oil play, a rock formation spanning 1,750 miles under the San Joaquin and Los Angeles basins, is estimated to have one of the largest shale oil deposits in the world – more than 15-billion barrels and 2-trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Gov. Jerry Brown has said the potential of the state’s oil reserves is “extraordinary.”
Back in the O.C.
Signal Hill officials noted that they are looking for oil deposits in existing and new wells in areas deep (2-5,000 ft.) under the Orange County aquifer where approximately 70 percent of the drinking water comes from. There are approximated 520 municipal drinking water wells drilled to an average depth of 540 feet throughout the county.
Every day, approximately 35 million gallons of treated water is pumped into injection wells, where it serves as a seawater intrusion barrier.
The system pumps another 35 million gallons to recharge basin well water.
One company official noted that they don’t engage in fracking in its current operations, using instead a vertical drilling method known as secondary recovery or water flooding. Adding that the company doesn’t “envision” hydraulic fracturing in Orange County. Nonetheless, SHP did believe that there were benefits to fracking that the company has discovered in its research of the method and called it a “compelling technology” for “unlocking oil and gas reserves across the country.”
When asked whether oil drilling poses a risk to groundwater, the company said not when the drilling is properly designed and executed properly. Adding that there have been “zero issues” related to groundwater contamination from oil operations in California. They also pointed out that there is stringent water monitoring safeguarding utilized.
Environmental, water activists and a UC Irvine geologist have said that there should always be concerns about water quality and that contamination remains a possibility, despite what oil companies assert.
EPA Abandons Another Major Fracking Study
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.
In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wy. – the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.
The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.
Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.
But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.
The EPA says that a string of 5 decisions to stop investigations and research is not related, and the Pavillion matter will be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing, which it says will draw the definitive line on fracking’s risks to water.
So where does this leave the EPA’s remaining research into the effects of fracking?
The agency has joined with the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Interior to study the environmental risks of developing unconventional fuels such as shale gas, but those involved in the collaboration say that little has happened.
That leaves the EPA’s highly anticipated national study on hydraulic fracturing as the only major research left on this issue. When the EPA announced it was ending its research in Pavillion, it pointed to this study as a “major research program.”
“The agency will look to the results of this program as the basis for its scientific conclusions and recommendations on hydraulic fracturing,” it said in a statement issued in partnership with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
That national study will concentrate on five case studies in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota and Colorado. It will not, however, focus on Pavillion, Parker County or Dimock. Nor will it devote much attention to places like Sublette County, WY, where state and federal activist agency personnel have claimed to have found both aquifer contamination and that drilling has caused dangerous levels of emissions and ozone pollution.
It will be a long time before the EPA’s national study can inform the debate over fracking. While the agency has promised a draft by late 2014, it warned last month that no one should expect to read the final version before sometime in 2016, the last full year of President Obama’s term.
California is a New and Hated Frontier for Fracking
Officials at an anti-fracking Oakland based non-profit activist group called Clean Water Action California (CWAC) said, “We would say there are significant risks to ground water.” Although industry leaders note that there haven’t been any incidents in California, CWAC agrees with other activists that it’s impossible to know when there is no disclosure of the chemicals used. And even in a low-risk situation, contamination of an aquifer would be devastating. Noting that – you can’t fix contamination very easily. You can’t take that pollution out, it’s a really expensive, long-term or even impossible job. That’s why the stakes are so high.
Signal Hill officials said their wells are constructed in steel casings well over a mile beneath the surface. Any waste that comes back up during the drilling process is properly stored. In our operations in LA County, nothing touches the ground, they said.
Meanwhile, California is at a crucial moment in the fracking debate. The State Assembly has been considering numerous (five) bills to place a moratorium on the drilling method until more is known about its environmental impacts.
Cities across California are also considering fracking bans. In April, small Mora County in New Mexico became the first county in the nation to ban the method.
And if recent history is an indication, OC residents may very well resist any sort of oil drilling. In the early 1990s, Chevron attempted to start a drilling operation in Garden Grove. After a massive public outcry and a voter initiative that severely restricted where the drilling could occur, the company pulled out.
Nonetheless, Signal Hill hopes that the company can convince local officials and the public that fracking and drilling as a safe operation that comes with a package of economic benefits, including jobs, taxes and fees.
State to Regulate Fracking
Fracking has been used by oil and gas companies in California for nearly 60 years, the technique’s use and prevalence has increased. Activists are angry because it is not formally tracked or directly regulated by law.
A proposal in Sacramento to change state law to monitor, regulate and track every well that uses hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has moved closer to becoming state law.
The bill, titled SB 4, was introduced by State Senator Fran Pavley, a Democrat from Calabasas who represents Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills and Westlake Village. Pavley’s bill has been two years in the making.
The bill has already passed the state senate, the Committee on Natural Resources in the California Assembly and will now be heard in Assembly Appropriations in August. If it passes both state houses it is expected to be signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.
Pavley’s bill would also require that oil and gas companies give notice to landowners in areas where fracking is going on. Backers said they believe the bill will likely pass and could be signed into law by Gov. Brown as early as this fall.