Despite inaction in the state legislature this year, California will proceed with tighter regulation and oversight of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking,’ to recover oil deposits throughout the state.
That admission comes from California’s top oil and gas administrator following an investigation by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit into the little-known practice of fracking for oil in California.
The NBC Bay Area investigation last February and March uncovered the widespread practice that has gone on for five decades with little oversight and no direct state regulation.
Now, that public scrutiny has the state's top regulator, Tim Kustic at California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), calling for more oversight.
In an exclusive on-camera interview with NBC Bay Area investigative reporter Stephen Stock, Kustic admitted that California has dropped the ball when it comes to regulating, tracking and overseeing fracking.
The technique of fracking includes injecting a high pressure stream of water and chemicals deep underground to split rocks and release oil and natural gas.
Around the rest of the country, it has become a controversial process used to release natural gas.
It's happening all over California, to recover oil instead of natural gas: from Kern and Los Angeles counties to Monterey and Sacramento counties.
Even though it’s been used for decades, California regulators don’t know how often it is used, what types of chemicals are used, how much water is being used, or how the wastewater from fracking techniques is being disposed of.
"We don’t have an exact number in the state of how many wells are fractured stimulated," Kustic said.
Fracking for natural gas in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York State has raised serious health concerns in communities where drinking water has caught fire, apparently from the high levels of fracking chemicals that have seeped into it.
In an interview, Kustic was asked as a scientist, isn't that information that the state's regulator and and the public should have?
“Certainly, we want to know," Kustic said. "That’s why I made the request of industry and that’s why they’re willing to provide it.”
But right now, that’s only voluntary. There are no laws, rules or regulations requiring industry to report to state regulators.
Last year the industry voluntarily reported 628 fracking wells statewide. But Kustic admitted there could be more fracking wells that the state doesn’t know about.
“We don’t know how much water is being used, we don’t know the types of chemicals being mixed in the water, and you don’t know any of that, other than what may be told to you voluntarily?" Stock asked.
"That is correct," Kustic replied.
"We don’t know exactly how many wells?" Stock asked again.
"That is correct," Kustic repeated.
"We (California) may be behind the curve on some of the disclosure of information (about fracking practices), but we’re ahead of the curve on (regulations regarding basic oil) well construction," Kustic said.
California state law requires strict monitoring, reporting and regulating any oil well construction, but it doesn’t require the same for fracking, not even a permit.
"Why hasn’t that happened here before? “Stock asked.
"Why hasn’t it happened before now? Quite simply there wasn’t the level of concern that there is now," Kustic replied. “It would have been better sure if we would have done this ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. But I can’t go back and redo history.”
Regulators and oil and gas industry supporters point out that despite little oversight, so far, there have been no problems or proven environmental or health effects from fracking in California.
And though they’ve publicly said they would cooperate with whatever regulations California adopts, industry supporters also worry that if California adopts rules that are too restrictive it could kill jobs.
Earlier this year some lawmakers tried to tighten the rules governing fracking, but that effort failed in the legislature. In fact, concern over loss of jobs helped kill a bill in the state Senate that would have merely tracked the practice of fracking in California.
Even so, Kustic says his department (DOGGR) is moving forward to adopt and implement new rules anyway. DOGGR has already held seven public hearings on the proposed new regulations. And it will continue to hold more hearings around the state to get industry and public input.
They hope to shine a brighter light on a practice they admit has remained in the dark here in California for far too long.