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Lost Hills Oil Field in California. By Richard Masoner CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia

Fracking study may allow feds to resume lucrative oil leases in Kern

John Cox | Bakersfield Californian

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management took a big step toward resuming auctions of federal property in California for oil and gas production with its release Thursday of an independent scientific review of well stimulation activities in the state.

The review by the nonpartisan California Council on Science and Technology found no instances of groundwater contamination, seismic activity or other significant detrimental environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing. However, its authors offered several caveats with the review, including a shortage of independently verifiable data.

While criticized by environmental groups as inadequate, the study is the most ambitious look yet at the possible impacts of “fracking” in California, where the controversial practice differs from its use in other states because of the state’s unique geology.

The BLM stopped auctioning federal oil and gas property in California after it was sued in 2012 by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, which together alleged the agency’s lease sales failed to take into account various environmental drawbacks.

Resuming the auctions would give Kern County oil producers access to federal petroleum deposits, and provide the government with lucrative royalties.

In 2010 alone, the bureau reported auctioning off 300 leases covering 386,703 acres in California. It said this generated $122 million for the federal government and led to the production of 19.7 million barrels of oil that year and 4.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The BLM’s California director, Jim Kenna, said the agency expects to resume gas and oil lease auctions in the state next year, following the conclusion of an environmental review incorporating the study.

One of the study’s authors at the CCST said the study is important also because it is the launching point of a review the state Department of Conservation has commissioned to fulfill the requirements of last year’s Senate Bill 4, California’s landmark fracking law. That study is due in January.

The study was immediately criticized by environmentalists opposed to fracking. Activists seized upon the authors’ acknowledgement that the self-reported industry data reviewed spanned only a few months, and that further study would be required to gain a better understanding of the impacts of fracking and other practices.

Related: California Has a Lot of Fracking but Only a Little Oil

The director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, Kassie Siegel, said using the report to justify continued fracking in the state was “illogical and illegal.”

“This report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to California’s air and water, but it also highlights the fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine the extent of the damage in our state,” she said in a written statement.

While many of the CCST’s findings were in line with expectations, at least one wasn’t — and it could affect Kern County agriculture.

Study chairwoman Jane Long told reporters at a morning phone conference that, in some cases, fluids associated with fracking — some of which may be toxic — could make their way into produced water, the saline solution that comes up with oil during production.

She said it’s uncertain what may become of those fluids and whether they are eventually used for agricultural purposes in the Central Valley.

But as Long emphasized, it is hard to make any definitive statements about the effects of oil well stimulation because of a lack of studies and consistent, transparent data collection.

Even so, the science council downplayed any potential environmental impacts of fracking.

“Overall, in California, the direct impacts of well stimulation appear to be relatively limited for industry practice of today and will likely be limited in the future if proper management practices are followed,” the CCST said in a written statement.

 

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