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Editorial: Ohio quakes shake up the fracking debate

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat

In Anderson Springs and other towns near The Geysers, residents rock and roll through earthquakes triggered by geothermal energy production.

The quakes tend to be small, rattling nerves but causing little if any damage.

Yet these temblors occur more frequently since energy companies operating in the steamfields along the Sonoma-Lake county line started pumping wastewater into the ground to stimulate production.

The recharging process at The Geysers is similar to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which frees oil and gas trapped in underground rock formations by injecting a high-pressure stream of water, sand and chemicals.

Fracking has turned North Dakota into a major energy producer, and the practice is spreading across the country, fueling predictions that the United States will soon become the world’s largest energy exporter. But new questions are surfacing about fracking and seismic activity.

Until now, the only known issues involved the disposal of wastewater in injection wells deep underground after drilling operations. This month, state geologists in Ohio reported a probable connection between fracking operations and a swarm of small earthquakes in an area that hadn’t previously experienced seismic activity. (There were no disposal wells in the area.)

In response, the state of Ohio imposed new regulations, including mandatory seismic monitoring and a requirement to suspend fracking operations if a quake with a magnitude of more than 1 is detected.

What does this mean for California, where some activists are seeking a permanent moratorium on fracking?

In our view, a single finding doesn’t justify an immediate prohibition, especially given that fracking has been a common practice in Kern County oil fields for decades.

However, it should inform California’s ongoing review of plans to tap the Monterey Shale, a vast formation beneath the San Joaquin Valley that is believed to contain millions of barrels of oil. Energy companies are eager to begin large-scale fracking operations, but Ohio’s experience, and California’s network of earthquake faults, underscore the need for caution.

A law adopted last year directs the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to research the safety of fracking and to develop regulations, which ought to include seismic monitoring, and a permitting process by the end of this year. The law also requires public notification and disclosure of chemicals used in fracking.

In opposing the legislation, oil and gas interests complained that a de facto moratorium would go into effect if the regulations weren’t completed on schedule. A bill now pending in Sacramento would impose a moratorium until a scientific study is conducted with public participation and certified by state executive agencies to pose no risk whatsoever.

The standard seems excessive, and the bill would be overkill — if the ongoing development of regulations remains on schedule and energy companies hold off on the Monterey Shale until the rules are in place. Keeping the bill moving may be an incentive to keep the regulatory process on track.

 

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