The Controversial Oil Extraction Technique is Making a Resurgence in the Sespe Oil Field, Threatening Downstream Water Supplies
Fillmore, CA – For several decades, the oil industry has injected potentially harmful chemicals deep beneath the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County’s Sespe Oil Field, and the controversial practice – known as hydraulic fracturing – is now making a resurgence. The fracking was discovered after a yearlong investigation by the local nonprofit land conservation organization Los Padres ForestWatch involving thousands of pages of state and federal government records.
Hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as “fracking” – is a process whereby water, sand, and various chemical additives are pumped thousands of feet underground to break apart rock formations and stimulate the extraction of oil and gas. The technique has come under increasing scrutiny from scientists, regulators, and the public due to concerns with groundwater contamination, surface water pollution, and public health. Hundreds of fracking chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, and several are known to cause cancer.
The ForestWatch investigation revealed that at least four wells were fracked in the Sespe Oil Field in 2011, and at least three additional wells were fracked in 2012. The fracking occurred on private land owned by Seneca Resources Corporation, a Texas-based oil company that operates the vast majority of wells in the Sespe Oil Field. The company relies on slant drilling to reach oil deposits on federal leases beneath the Los Padres National Forest. The chemicals, supplies and equipment were provided by Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil field service companies with revenues of $24.8 billion in 2011 and also headquartered in Texas.
The recent fracking operations were approved without any public notice or environmental review. This is because fracking is unregulated in the State of California, and is typically rubber-stamped by the California Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”), the agency charged with regulating oil and gas extraction throughout the state. In one of the recent Los Padres fracking operations, DOGGR officials received a Notice of Intention to Rework Well 48-33 on the White Star lease on June 22, 2012, and three days later issued a one-page Permit to Conduct Well Operations authorizing the fracking. According to records submitted by Seneca Resources Corporation, the fracking operation was completed a few days later on July 5, 2012.
351 FRACK JOBS IN THE SESPE…AND COUNTING
Altogether, the ForestWatch investigation revealed that fracking has occurred in the Sespe Oil Field at least 351 times since the practice was first reported to state officials in the mid-1960s. Fracking continued regularly here through the 1970s and 1980s, declining in the 1990s and was not reported at all in the early 2000s. The true number of fracking jobs may never be known, as the practice does not require any special approvals and is not tracked by state or federal officials, nor is it required to be disclosed to the public.
The Sespe Oil Field is located in and adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest north of the town of Fillmore in Ventura County. It contains nearly 300 active oil wells on federal and private land, according to data provided by the DOGGR. The oil field is also adjacent to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, the Coldwater Canyon Ecological Reserve, and the Sespe Wild & Scenic River, the latter of which is designated as critical habitat for the federally-endangered southern steelhead.
“The oil industry continues to pump large amounts of toxic chemicals into this ecologically sensitive area without any accountability to state regulators or the public,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. “This controversial practice must stop until adequate measures are in place to protect our community’s water supplies.”
The Los Padres National Forest is the only national forest in California with commercial quantities of oil and gas, and thus the only forest in the state where fracking is occurring.
“The public deserves to know what types of chemicals are being pumped into our groundwater, and what impact those chemicals are inflicting on our water supplies, wildlife, and the environment,” said Kuyper. ForestWatch will continue to track statewide and federal regulatory efforts, and will demand full disclosure of fracking chemicals and adequate safeguards to protect water quality and the environment.
ENVIRONMENTAL & HEALTH IMPACTS OF FRACKING
The practice of fracking has come under increasing scrutiny from regulators, adjacent landowners, and concerned citizens due to potential impacts to water supplies, the types of chemicals used, disposal of fracking wastes, and human health concerns.
• Water Use – In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year. The extraction of so much water for fracking has raised concerns about the ecological impacts to aquatic resources, as well as dewatering of drinking water aquifers. The 2012 fracking operations in the Sespe Oil Field used 267,630 gallons, 344,682 gallons, and 356,601 gallons, respectively, for a total water volume of nearly one million gallons. The water is pumped from an undisclosed location.
• Toxic Chemicals – In addition to large volumes of water, a variety of chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. The oil industry is quick to point out that chemicals typically make a small percentage of the total volume of the fracturing fluid. However, when hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are being used, the amount of chemicals per fracking operation is very large. Many fracturing fluid chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, some are classified as hazardous waste, and several are known to cause cancer. Seneca Resources Corporation does not disclose how it disposes of the fracking fluid in the Sespe Oil Field. In 2005, Congress – under heavy lobbying pressure from the oil industry – specifically exempted fracking from the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act, so fracking fluid wastes can legally be injected back into the ground for disposal.
• Health Concerns – Human exposure to fracking chemicals can occur by ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, through direct skin contact with the chemicals or wastes (e.g., by workers, spill responders or health care professionals), or by breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in pits or tanks. A 2011 report published in The International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment evaluated the toxicity of 632 different chemicals used during the natural gas extraction process, and found that more than 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; approximately 40-50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations. The report concluded, “These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed.”
RECENT EFFORTS TO REGULATE FRACKING
In May 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — the agency charged with overseeing oil drilling on federal lands — unveiled draft regulations governing the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, in addition to new requirements to prove that wells will not leak and that excess water can be managed. Among the proposed rule’s key provisions is a requirement that companies disclose the chemicals they use within one month of a fracking job. Environmental and public health advocates criticized the proposed rule, arguing that chemical disclosure should occur before a well is fracked, not after. Industry trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America oppose the regulation of fracking. The BLM received roughly 73,000 public comments on the draft regulations, and intends to issue final regulations by the end of the year.
Also earlier this year, DOGGR organized a series of public hearings aimed at the development of statewide regulations governing fracking. According to the DOGGR website, officials hope to release draft regulations “in the late Summer or early Fall, 2012.”
CHEMICALS USED IN THE SESPE OIL FIELD
Public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking is not required, and most frack jobs in the Los Padres National Forest have used undisclosed chemicals. Beginning this year, the oil industry began to voluntarily release some of this information. In filing its Notice of Intention to Rework Well 48-33 on the White Star lease, Seneca Resources Corporation voluntarily disclosed some of the chemicals that would be used in the fracking fluid, including:
• 72.34320% water
• 27.14709% sand
• Chemical additives, including ammonium salt, sodium hydroxide, ammonium chloride, ethylene glycol, monoethanolamine borate, acetic acid, acetic anhydride, methanol, sulfonate, 2,2 dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide, 2-monobromo-3-nitrilopropionamide, sodium persulfate, ammonium persulfate, amine salts, mis-quaternary methacrylamide monomer, cured acrylic resin, fatty alcohol polyglycol ether surfactant, polyquaternary amine salt, quaternary amine, quaternary ammonium compounds, bis (hydrogenated tallow alkyl) dimethyl, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate.
In a different fracking fluid composition disclosure form provided to DOGGR for the same well, Seneca also reported using citric acid, hydrochloric acid, propargyl alcohol, potassium carbonate, bisphenol A (“BPA”), and epichlorohydrin resin. It is unclear why Seneca submitted two conflicting disclosure forms, containing different ingredients and concentrations, for the same fracking job. Adding further uncertainty, several of the ingredients are designated on the form as “CONFIDENTIAL BUSINESS INFORMATION” and their exact compositions were not disclosed.
BPA is an endocrine disrupter that presents possible neurological hazards to fetuses, infants, and young children, according to a 2010 report from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. And a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that BPA could alter chromosomes, increasing the risk of birth defects and miscarriages. Its use in the manufacture of plastic drinking and baby bottles has generated significant controversy. In September 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance. The European Union, Canada, and recently the United States have banned BPA use in baby bottles.
To obtain the records, ForestWatch submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency charged with overseeing oil drilling on national forests and other federal lands. The August 2011 request asked for “all records showing whether fracking is occurring, or has occurred, in the Sespe Oil Field.” In its September 2011 response, the agency offered to provide ForestWatch with 480 pages of fracking-related documents at a cost of $1,742.40.
On September 24, 2011, ForestWatch filed an appeal to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor in Washington, DC, asking officials to grant a waiver of fees given the importance of publicly disclosing the records. On December 20, 2011, the department directed ForestWatch to online well records maintained by the CDOGGR, which consists of thousands of pages of records for wells in the Sespe Oil Field. ForestWatch reviewed all of these records for any references to fracking, a process that took several months to complete. ForestWatch also conducted a search for fracking operations using FracFocus, an online industry-funded chemical disclosure registry where oil companies can voluntarily report chemicals used in fracking operations.