Are Regulators Ignoring California's New Fracking Law?

An analysis of oil wells fracked and reported by industry since the beginning of the year shows dozens of those wells are not showing up on the State's website, as required by new state law.

By Stephen Stock, Liza Meak, Scott Pham and Mark Villarreal
|  Wednesday, May 28, 2014  |  Updated 5:11 AM PDT
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As many as 77 different oil wells that the gas and oil industry reported were fracked in January and February had yet to show up on the website run by California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) by May 20, 2014. Stephen Stock reports in a video that aired on May 27, 2014.

As many as 77 different oil wells that the gas and oil industry reported were fracked in January and February had yet to show up on the website run by California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) by May 20, 2014. Stephen Stock reports in a video that aired on May 27, 2014.

As many as 77 different oil wells that the gas and oil industry reported were fracked in January and February had yet to show up on the website run by California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) by May 20, 2014.

That apparently flies in the face of a new law, titled [Senate Bill Four] or SB4, which requires the state to notify residents within 60 days of any well stimulation. SB4 also was supposed to require that oil and gas companies notify neighbors about upcoming well stimulation activities.

Well stimulation includes things such as hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), the use of gravel or hydrochloric acid, or other acids to stimulate well production.

Governor Brown signed the bill into law last September [pdf] and it took effect January 1, 2014.

Environmental Group, The Center For Biological Diversity analyzed publicly available fracking records. NBC Bay Area verified the analysis and found a total of 116 oil wells that have been fracked and voluntarily reported on the industry's own website, Frac Focus.

Those fracking operations took place in January and February of 2014, after the new law took effect and long past the 60-day notification period.

As of May 20, 2014, 77 of those 116 wells had not yet been posted on the State of California’s website run by DOGGR.

The Center for Biological Diversity and NBC Bay Area also independently verified 62 separate wells where local air quality management records show hydrochloric acid was used. Those 62 wells don’t show up on the DOGGR website either, as of May 20, 2014.

That hydrocholoric acid data comes from the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California (SCAQMD).

The new state law only requires that DOGGR post the use of hydrochloric acid on wells when the technique is used to stimulate well production.

State officials deny DOGGR is dragging its feet in implementing the new law, even though there are a number of wells that should have been listed on the state's website before May 20th of this year.

“We’re hitting all of our marks,” said Jason Marshall, Chief Deputy Director of California’s Department of Conservation, which oversees DOGGR and the implementation of SB4.

“The requirements of SB4 is for the operators [oil and gas companies] to report to Frac Focus within 60 days after completing the stimulation job, the fracking, or other forms of stimulation,” said Marshall. “Then there’s an additional 15 days after that for it to show up on our site.”

“We are working diligently,” Marshall told NBC Bay Area. “As the operators are reporting the stuff on Frac Focus, we’re working diligently with them to get that additional information, so then that we can link that up so we can post it on our site.

Marshall also said that the reporting requirements for activities such as the use of hydrochloric acid are different between DOGGR and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

“There’s actually a difference of reporting requirements down in the South Coast Air district, and from that versus what’s in Senate Bill Four (SB4),” Marshall said, “And there have been a number of operations that are not reportable under Senate Bill 4, but are under the South Coast rule and we’ve been working with South Coast so we have a little bit better continuity. We hope to remove the confusion for the public on well, how come it’s reported here but not there.”

Marhsall admitted that “some” the department’s reporting may confuse an already confused public. “But we can only control what we’re handed, in terms of implementation of SB4,” he said.

Hollin Kretzmann with the Center for Biological Diversity said all this is a smokescreen. Kretzmann, an attorney, who originally analyzed the fracking and well stimulation data, said the state simply isn’t following the new law.

The bottom line is these legislations aren’t working,” said Kretzmann. “They aren’t keeping communities safe from the dangers of fracking.”

That’s why Kretzmann says The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, citing these discrepancies as reason to call for an immediate halt to fracking throughout California.

“Basically, fracking communities across California are being kept in the dark about what’s happening in their communities,” said Kretzmann. “Fracking is a dangerous practice and to not know where it’s happening or how frequently is a huge concern to not just me but to all Californians.”

Living Next Door to a Drilling Operation

At first glance St Andrews Gardens Apartments in Los Angeles appears like any other neighborhood in California.

But beyond the cinderblock wall and behind a stretched tarp next to the parking lot, St Andrews Gardens’ resident Don Martin only recently discovered that an oil drilling operation was using hydrochloric acid to treat the well behind a wall.

“The only barrier between this particular site and our apartment units is this wall,” Martin said. “It angers me because first of all, we weren’t informed there were chemicals at this particular location.Absolutely, we have a right to know what’s going on in our back yard behind that tarp.”

“SB4 is still a new law, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco, who co-sponsored SB4.

Even so, Senator Leno is concerned about what NBC Bay Area and The Center for Biological Diversity found in the analysis of the data.

He says that’s why he is now calling for a halt to all well stimulation including fracking until the issue can be studied further.

“I’m concerned and it only reinforces why we should consider a moratorium while we gather the information that’s required in SB4,” Leno told NBC Bay Area.

When asked if the point of SB4 was to inform, educate and clear up public confusion, Jason Marshall of California’s Department of Conservation agreed but said DOGGR is complying with the law as it is currently written.

“It absolutely is the point,” said Marshall. “One of the central points of SB4 is to increase public transparency. But again, we can't impose more reporting requirements on operators.”

Los Angeles resident Don Martin says he just wants himself and his neighbors living next to the well to be informed.

“It started to be a concern to our health and safety,” said Martin. “In order to protect the residents here, it [SB4] absolutely needs to be enforced. And that’s part of the problem is the lack of enforcement.”

The Department of Conservation’s Jason Marshall does admit the law could and should be tweaked to help clear up confusion and San Francisco State Senator Leno says he will work to make that happen.

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