The Overlooked Costs of California Fracking

Courtesy of Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

Courtesy of Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

By Terrence Neal.

California, generally recognized as a leader in the environmental movement, may be the next hot bed for hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. 

The state sits atop the United States’ largest shale oil formation, the Monterey shale, which is estimated to contain 15.4 barrels of oil. Fracking comes into play here because it is one of the few extraction methods capable of accessing the Monterey oil, which is trapped in unfavorable rock formations.

Consequently, the oil and gas industry, the federal government, and the Governor of California see fracking the Monterey as a surefire path to economic growth. While economic benefits, such as job creation and tax revenue, are likely certain, fracking in California is not an economical decision once its potential long-term social costs are factored into the equation.

Fracking is a very water-intensive practice and according to the International Energy Agency, as much as five million gallons of water can be used to frack a single well. The large amount of water used may not be a problem in a water rich state, but for California it’s a different story. The state is in its third year of drought, and as a result, at least 1’000 residents have run out of water. Increasing the prevalence of fracking will only further stress scarce water resources, and force families, farms, and aquatic ecosystems to compete with the oil and gas industry for water.

Moreover, the injection of fracking fluids, which contain a cocktail of known carcinogens and neurotoxins, into the ground may lead to the contamination of drinking water. It has been widely accepted that fracking occurs miles below the surface out of the reach of groundwater, but research from Stanford University scientists reveals that it is actually sometimes happening less than a thousand feet underground in sources of drinking water. This is a matter of particular concern for Californians because much of the oil rich Monterey formation lies underneath aquifers in the Central Valley and Southern California, which are used for drinking water and the state’s billion-dollar agriculture industry.

Another cost associated with fracking is air pollution. A study by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health found that fracking wells emit benzene, a known carcinogen, and aliphatic hydrocarbons, like methane, and xylenes, which have neurological and/or respiratory effects. Increasing the prevalence of fracking in California, where the vast majority of citizens live in counties with failing air quality grades, will exacerbate existing air issues. 

Methane, is also a potent greenhouse gas. According to the U.S. EPA, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is over 20 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Increasing fracking and consequently, methane, is detrimental for California, and the entire world, seeing that many scientists believe climate change is responsible for extreme weather worldwide, including state’s historic dry spell. 

Failing to account for the social costs of fracking is a huge mistake. California lawmakers should pass a fracking moratorium until drought conditions pass and more peer-reviewed research is completed to determine the full impacts of the practice on the environment and human health. Some studies have already been completed, but due to industry bias and researchers working with incomplete data sets, many are imperfect.

While banning or halting fracking may seem like a missed economic opportunity, it is not. California, a state that champions itself as a leader in combatting climate change, should focus on supporting energy efficiency and the renewable energy industry to grow its economy. These industries provide a boost to the economy without the negative impacts on human wellbeing and the environment associated with fracking. For instance, it is estimated that achieving just 10 percent of Los Angeles’s rooftop solar potential could create 47,000 jobs and annually eliminate roughly 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

If California, and the rest of the world, truly wants to move past fossil fuels and take steps to mitigate the effects of climate change, government officials must force industries to internalize the social costs of their practices, use peer-reviewed science to create strong, enforceable regulations that ensure the sustainable use of natural resources, and push for the adoption of renewable and energy efficient technology.




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