If you’ve paid any attention to the 2020 presidential election cycle, then you’ve heard the term “fracking” thrown around by candidates. It was mentioned several times during the first presidential debate with President Donald Trump accusing Democractic nominee former vice president Joe Biden that he would ban fracking.
But what is fracking and why do people want to see it end? The short answer: It’s a controversial oil extraction method that experts say is harming people’s health, and stopping the practice would be part of starting to end the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
However, it’s more complicated than that.
In California, environmental advocates would like to see fracking end. Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recent executive order asked the state to explore ways to end new hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024. The order notes that in-state oil extraction has declined by 60% since 1985, but that demand hasn’t slowed down.
“We simply don’t have that authority,” Newsom said in September. “That’s why we need the Legislature to approve it.”
California has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Part of that is phasing out the sale of new gas powered cars and trucks by 2035. That’s going to take less dependence on fossil fuels.
That will mean making sure both supply and demand for oil and natural gas dwindle, says David Shabazian, director of the Department of Conservation.
“We have an industry in decline, we want to make sure that as it’s declining, we manage that decline so that we have operators continuing to operate responsibly,” he said. “This idea of a just transition means that we don’t just basically gut this industry and leave behind these communities that are dependent on this industry.”
What Is Fracking?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a practice where a high pressure cocktail of water, chemicals and sand are shot into the ground to establish an oil well to help remove oil and natural gas from the earth. It breaks up layers of rock and the oil and natural gas escapes through the cracks.
It’s an oil extraction practice that has the potential to contaminate drinking water and pollute air, according to environmental advocates like Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. That’s why she and many other groups are asking Newsom to ban the practice.
“Common sense would suggest that you wouldn’t want a big industrial operation literally in your backyard,” she said. “You would not want people to be exposed to that. But in parts of Los Angeles and parts of the San Joaquin Valley, that is what is going on.”
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club also want rules in place that would require a 2,500-foot buffer zone between homes and schools. The state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, CalGEM, is working on draft rules for buffer zones. Lawmakers rejected legislation earlier this year that would have mandated buffer zones.
In the meantime Phillips says Newsom should do something about the zones and ending fracking.
“We think that he has the authority to do so especially given the public health impacts, the water impacts,” Phillips said. “There’s plenty of evidence that fracking creates problems in California.”
Out of the state’s more than 48,000 active onshore production wells, only 638 are used for hydraulic fracturing, according to Shabazian. He says well stimulation, which is one method of fracking, accounts for a tiny fraction of all of California’s oil and gas production. The rest comes from traditional oil drilling and steam injections.
“Fracking is a small part of oil production in California, it’s about 1.5%, maybe 2%,” he said. “It does get a lot of attention, but it’s not the biggest form of oil production in California. I think that that’s maybe not well known.”
Shabazian says because of the pandemic, the amount of permits requested this year has dropped dramatically. He says usually there are about 60 permit requests per quarter, but this year “we don’t even have the equivalent of one full quarters worth of fracking permits. Of those that have been issued operators have only drilled five wells.”
Don Drysdale, a public affairs officer for the conservation department, says there are 39 active fracking permits in the state, which last for a year. He added that the practice is a “one-time operation lasting less than a day.”
But the Independent Petroleum Association of America says it takes between three and five days to establish a well.
A 2015 report by the California Council on Science and Technology found that from 2005 to 2015 around 20% of all California oil and gas production was found using fracking.
The oil industry, represented by groups like the California Independent Petroleum…