EDITORIAL: 'Fracking' must be regulated

As The Sacramento Bee's Tom Knudson reported last Sunday, the oil industry is gearing up for "an enormous buried treasure called Monterey shale," a deep deposit that runs from Los Angeles to Modesto and is thought to contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil.

Refineries in the Golden State receive most of their crude oil from the Middle East and Ecuador, and Southern California is attempting to rapidly transition from out-of-state coal-powered electricity to natural gas generation of power. To create jobs here and buffer California from international instability, it would behoove our state to be more of a home-grown producer of oil and gas.

Yet if the Monterey Shale is to be exploited, there must be safeguards in place for groundwater, air quality and neighbors of developed gas fields. State and federal regulations are inadequate. In 2005, for instance, Congress enacted what is now known as "the Halliburton loophole," named after the oil services company that former Vice President Dick Cheney once led. This loophole exempts most forms of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little or no authority to regulate "fracking" and the public is left in the dark. Where is fracking taking place? With what chemicals? How and where are oil extractions waste being disposed?

The oil industry says that fracking has been safely practiced for decades, but problems with well casings have contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania and other states. The biggest concern is long-term contamination of deep aquifers. According to a recent congressional report, oil and gas companies used 29 fracking chemicals from 2005 to 2009 that are known or possible human carcinogens. No one knows for sure what chemicals the industry uses because it is not required to report them.

Fracking is just part of the concern. The oil industry is using another method to "stimulate" oil wells and extract fossil fuels from deep in the earth. This method, known as acidification or "acid jobs," involves the injection of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into a well to create or widen channels for the oil and gas to seep out. Yet to date, the California Department of Conservation has no regulations -- or plans for regulations -- that would cover acidification.

These shortcomings demand that the California Legislature take action this session to oversee oil and gas extraction methods that have been completely underground, in all senses of that word. Last week, the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources passed Senate Bill 4, a bill by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, that would establish a comprehensive regulatory program. While the bill may need fine turning -- particularly on how regulators would deal with "trade secret" chemicals used in fracking -- it would put California far ahead of other states in making sure that public interests are protected with expansion of oil and gas drilling techniques.