California Well Stimulation Report Finds Data Lacking, Risks Broad

A report on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, and other well stimulation technologies (WST) in California found that the data available to perform such an analysis is “very limited” and the potential impacts of stimulation-enabled production may be significant.

This reinforces the need for a time out on fracturing and other well stimulation techniques in California while the risks are being studied, and until the state determines whether – and if so, how – oil and gas resources can be developed in a way that protects against the environmental and human health impacts and respects the quality of life in local communities.

The goals of the study, conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, which was contracted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), were to assess the stimulation techniques used in the state and past and potential future environmental impacts.

Among the main conclusions are:

  • Hydraulic fracturing fluids in California tend to have higher chemical concentrations
  • Water demand for WST can contribute to local impacts on water availability, particularly during droughts – like the one California is currently experiencing
  • Hydraulic fracturing in California is occurring at relatively shallow depths, which puts protected groundwater at greater risk
  • Current practices might allow flowback – the used hydraulic fracturing fluid that returns to the surface – to be used for irrigation

Importantly, the researchers also concluded that, “there is evidence that the indirect impacts of WST-enabled oil and gas production may be significant…” In other words, all the activities – from site preparation to plugging and abandonment – associated with oil and gas production made possible by fracturing, acidizing, and other WST may have significant environmental and health impacts. The growing body of scientific research supports this conclusion.

However, the researchers also found that data gaps made it difficult to answer the key questions posed in the scope of work. California-specific data gaps identified include:

  • Information on well stimulation practices, including types of stimulation techniques used, water use, chemical use, and other information
  • Data on the toxicity of WST chemical mixtures and risks posed by acute or chronic exposure
  • Identity of the contaminants in flowback fluid
  • Information about the location and quality of groundwater
  • Baseline data on groundwater quality
  • Studies and data on compromised well integrity and links to groundwater contamination
  • Information on the impacts of accidental or intentional releases of well stimulation chemicals or fluids
  • Information on the fate of flowback fluid and wastewater disposal practices
  • Air emissions - including greenhouse gases, hazardous air pollutants, and air toxics - from stimulation activities
  • Correlations between seismicity and wastewater injection
  • Information needed to develop forecasts for unconventional oil production

The report is narrowly focused to look only at the direct impacts from the act of well stimulation itself – things like impacts from using large volumes of water and chemicals and the high injection pressure needed to break rock apart. However, the researchers found that in California, “[t]he direct impacts in general have not been monitored.” Lack of transparency contributes to this problem. The researchers hypothesize that oil and gas operators and service companies may have this needed information but do not make it available to the public.

Given all these big holes in our current knowledge about WST in California that the researchers identified, it is troubling that the report contains this finding: “the direct impacts of WST appear to be relatively limited.” This broad conclusion is not supported by the underlying data – or, more to the point, the lack thereof – and may lead to confusion or obscure the other findings of the report.

Meanwhile, both California and the BLM are in the process of finalizing regulations for WST – all before the potential impacts and ways to protect against them are fully understood. These decisions to frac now, ask questions later are putting California communities and our shared public lands at risk. We need our leaders to make better, more responsible decisions, because when it comes to oil and gas production, what we don’t know may indeed hurt us.