The great fracking debate is coming to California, pitting the oil and natural gas industry against environmentalists in a battle for control of the Monterey Shale, believed to be the richest oil deposit in the United States.
Energy companies dream of setting off a 21st-century Gold Rush in the Central Valley, bringing jobs and riches to a region now suffering from high unemployment. California has a golden opportunity to help meet the nation's energy needs while enacting model legislation for other states to follow. But the experiences of Pennsylvania, New York and Texas provide a wealth of knowledge about fracking's considerable risks to groundwater and air quality, and we have to learn from them.
Gov. Jerry Brown has gotten off to a terrible start. The draft rules he has released are ridiculously inadequate. They fail the primary test, which is to protect the integrity of the state's water supply -- a resource more precious than oil in California.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that injects chemicals under high pressure into the ground to free oil and gas from rock formations. The drillers prefer not to disclose the chemicals they use, arguing that their formulas are trade secrets. But secrecy also shields them from responsibility for damage the chemicals might do to water supplies. Brown's draft rules allow that absurdity.
At least eight states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas -- all considered to be more pro-business than California -- have already enacted disclosure legislation, in some cases after hard lessons. The wastewater from fracking in Pennsylvania made the Monongahela River, which supplies drinking water for tens of thousands of residents, unfit for use for months.
Fortunately, some legislators, including Fremont Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski and Santa Monica Sen. Fran Pavley, are arguing for the public's right to know what's being pumped into the ground. They believe water quality tests should be done -- and the results made public -- before and after any fracking occurs. And they want more advance notice of fracking operations. These are common-sense requirements.
It isn't only drinking water at stake. The Monterey Shale oil deposits lie 11,000 feet below some of California's richest agricultural land, stretching roughly from Modesto to Bakersfield. California provides more than 10 percent of the nation's food, and much of it is produced in the Central Valley.
Energy producers have known about the Monterey Shale since 1969, but only in the past decade has new technology made it profitable to go after the 15.4 billion barrels of oil. Hence the need for new regulations.
The Monterey Shale could produce enough oil to meet the entire nation's energy needs for about three years. There are many benefits to be gleaned and fortunes to be made, but this oil is not our permanent energy salvation, and reaching it is not more important than protecting California's water. That should be the governor's main concern.