Scientists prescribe a long to-do list to improve safety of fracking in California

After two years and more than 2,000 pages, the Independent Scientific Assessment of Well Stimulation in California found that the state has a long way to go make oil and gas production safer for communities and the environment. The Summary Report alone includes 23 recommendations for studies, policies, and measures to address risks and data gaps.

Although it will take some time to evaluate the full scope of this document, here are some of the findings that speak to the threats faced by communities at the frontlines of oil and gas development:

  • In order to protect public health, California must address direct impacts that come from the fracking and well stimulation techniques, as well as closely examine threats arising from oil and gas development more generally that are enabled by these techniques.
  • Current policies are not sufficient to protect the health of communities living nearby from:
    • Risks associated with the use of hazardous and uncharacterized chemicals
    • Air pollutants released at the well site or formed in the atmosphere as a result of emissions
    • Contamination of groundwater used for drinking water
  • Oil and gas workers face additional health risks
  • Huge data gaps exist that limit quantitative evaluation of health risks
  • Current practices for monitoring and reporting pollutants are incomplete, inadequate and prone to inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

The report also makes a number of important recommendations that can improve public health protections including:

  • Restricting the use of chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment.
  • Controlling the emissions of toxic air pollutants from well sites.
  • Developing policies to limit exposures by requiring oil and gas wells to be a certain distance away from schools, hospitals, homes or other important places (called setbacks).
  • Conducting additional studies of community and worker exposures and health risks
  • Improving the safety of methods used to dispose of wastewater and phasing out the practice of storing wastewater in open-air pits
  • Protecting shallow groundwater resources from contamination resulting from spills, leaks and wastewater injection

The long list of recommendations in this impressive study tells me that, when it comes to oil and gas, California is not yet living up to its reputation as an environmental leader. Communities living on the front lines, who are predominantly low-income and communities of color, shouldn't continue to face the risks described in this study and need to see action from state leaders. As I read through the risks, data gaps, and uncertainties described in this report, I can't help but wonder how much longer is California going to gamble with the health of communities while studies, regulations, and measures are considered and implemented? Protecting public health means acting to prevent harm and the state can start showing its commitment to that ideal by putting in place a moratorium while it works to implement the recommendations from this report, and determine how to fully protect against fracking's environmental and public health threats.