The Monterey Shale, Fracking For Oil And San Diego Concerns
September 25, 2013 1:23 p.m.
Richard Behl, Professor, Department of Geological Sciences,Cal State Long Beach
Peg Mitchell, Environmentalist, Sierra Club of San Diego
Related Story: The Monterey Shale, Fracking For Oil And San Diego Concerns
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Californians are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that our state is a prime area for the oil and gas extraction method known as fracking. In fact, some geologists estimate California may have the most will available through that method than any other state. But the notion of fracking may become widespread in California horrifies many environmentalists who have concerns ranging from water contamination to potential earthquakes. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill called SB4 which contains the nation's toughest regulations on fracking. I'd like to introduce my guests. Prof. Richard Behl is a professor of geology at Cal State University in Long Beach. And Peg Mitchell is with San Diego Sierra Club. Welcome to you both.
RICHARD BEHL: Hi there.
PEG MITCHELL: Hi, thank you for having us.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We invited several sponsors of the fracking regulation bill to join us today but they were not available let me start with you Prof. Behl. Can you give us a brief idea of what fracking is and how it gets at the fossil fuel inside rocks?
RICHARD BEHL: Yeah, sure. So hydraulic fracturing, or what is now called franking is a technique to enhance this extraction of hydrocarbons from rocks that have otherwise sort of low connectivity and low ability for fluids and gas to move out from them into a will that is drilled into them. This is one of two techniques, the horizontal or directional drilling that has really led to the changes in the petroleum industry that could be very very dramatic that everyone is talking about.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: From what I understand there is a high-pressure chemical formula that is actually injected into the rock used to fracture the rocks and that allows the oil and gas to be extracted?
RICHARD BEHL: Well, so that's right, so you drill to get oil or gas you drill with these big, gated drilling rigs down deep into the earth into an area that your geologists have figured out that they think there is oil and gas. And if they find a reservoir, or a rock that has oil and gas in it, hopefully it has good properties that allow the oil and gas to flow naturally into the well. But, in other cases, the rock is particularly tight, or has low permeability to it and you knew do things to in courage that production. So, hydraulic fracturing is a way of isolating a certain part of the well that is, has been drilled and increasing the pressure with fluids and sand with different kinds of chemicals that are like soaps and (inaudible) and detergents and things like that and something hard enough that the rock structures in that area and this makes a lot of cracks which sort of open up the connection between them porous spaces in the rocks and the well bore.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now California's Monterey shale is said to hold the greatest potential for fracking. First of all what is the Monterey Shale?
RICHARD BEHL: So the Monterey shale or the Monterey formation is a very widespread sedimentary deposit that is about 15to 5 million years old, and it's one known to be the source of almost all the oil in California. It is made of a rock that is not truly shale, it is more brittle than shale that in the most tectonically active area of California with volcanic faults and stuff it's naturally fractional so that became a reservoir. So there's other places like (inaudible) and Santa Barbara where oil produced from fractured Monterey shale rocks, but this deposit which has sort of relatives like all around the Pacific Rim, Japan, Korea, down into Peru and Chile and such like that is very very organic rich because it's made up mostly of plankton from the ocean. When it was first deposited buried, that burial that heats up and can turn to oil and gas. So usually in most cases in the past the oil would work its way out of the shale and into reservoir and traps where the petroleum geologists and engineers would drill to get it out. Now what people are talking about is can the Monterey formation be like some of these other shales, other places in North America where there's still a lot of oil and gas trapped in the rock enough where the idea of fracking comes in.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Prof. Behl it's my understanding that the Monterey shale and so somewhere in Orange County and there really isn't any here in San Diego is that right?
RICHARD BEHL: There's a little bit at the very north end of San Diego at San Onofre state beach. And there's most likely shale offshore of San Diego as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Peg, the Sierra Club did not promote, support SB4 though supporters say the bill requires all companies to disclose the chemicals they use for this fracking method to get permits, to monitor groundwater and air quality, and that this law is a lot better than nothing. Is it?
PEG MITCHELL: Well it is an incremental advance that I think we appreciate because it does for the first time force attention on regulating something that we know is very possibly fraught with risk. But I think the point there is possibly. There's still a lot of things that we don't know. So although there were many good things incrementally in us before you already identified for example having to get a permit, having to disclose the chemicals, estimated amounts of chemicals, notifying landowners, etc. The problem is that it does not require full disclosure of the chemicals that are involved, first of all. So although there may be a list of what is used, the quantities and concentrations are not specifically spelled out. And you know that that can be very problematic when you need to understand exactly how chemicals intermix and how they become more toxic, the higher the concentration. So without having that full disclosure it's impossible to exactly know in the case of an emergency was going on. So the trade secret protection that was in the original bill was there. We worked for a while with Fran Pevely who I think has been a wonderful environmental steward to try to get more transparency and accountability in that and ultimately we got to the point where it is still, it's better but it's still not good enough in terms of disclosure.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think many people are familiar with the videos from other areas of the country where fracking caused contamination of the water supply has resulted in people being able to actually set fire to the tap water with a match. I mean, that kind of video has been on YouTube for a well. Prof. Behl I think we might all agree that's really bad publicity for fracking. How does that happen?
RICHARD BEHL: That is pretty dramatic. And very impressive so I think that motivated a lot of people. I'm not going to downplay the fact that any kind of industrial process where you are bringing big machinery into areas that don't have it and you are bringing chemicals doesn't have a lot of issues to adopt we want to regulate and we want to understand very well. But I also would alert people that in New York and in Pennsylvania, where some of these films were shot before fracking was ever used in that area almost half the wells have some methane in them because they're sitting on top of rocks that generate methane. So whether or not the increases that they have shown in the film are related to drilling activity or whether if somebody had done that 10 years ago they would've seen the same thing, I don't think that's been demonstrated.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of thing professor mentions here is New York and New York has a moratorium on fracking has had one for several years and that's one of the things that California legislators some of them really wanted to include the bill. It's not there, so Peg, I'm wondering your opinion, do we have enough information about potential risks of fracking or would you still like to see a moratorium?
PEG MITCHELL: We definitely still would like to see a moratorium. For us that is key because there are still way too many unknowns. So for example their interest before there was a moratorium clause in the bill that would place a halt on these activities until a scientific study was done to be done by January 1, 2015 that would tell us a whole lot more than what we know today about possible contamination issues. Groundwater contamination, spillage at sites, what is in the chemicals, air toxicity, all sorts of things. That's really good information that we are still going to get. So the good thing about the bill is that the study requirement is still in there but there's now no longer a moratorium which allows them to continue unfettered, unregulated and unmonitored until January 2015, another 15 months or so. So we hopefully will not have any adverse effects or undue problems in the meantime. We will learn a lot from the study. But you know I look at it as it's sort of like the FDA saying we know there could be some serious adverse effects of this drug but keep taking it, will study it for a couple years and get back to you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's also been shown that the fracking technique caused a series of earthquakes in Ohio where they didn't have earthquakes before and that's caught the attention of a lot of people here in California where we do have earthquakes. So first of all professor Behl, why would fracking trigger earthquakes?
RICHARD BEHL: For the most part it probably doesn't there may be a few cases where it can was kind of closely related to cracking that is really quite different is the idea of fluid injection which is much more so which is done to just replace fluids that are taken out of formations. Whenever you change a pressure distribution down in area, the rocks can naturally shift and crack. So there is a long history of human activities that have induced earthquakes and Earth movement in different ways. So, for instance when we fill a damn sight, new dam site there is all kinds of recorded earthquakes around these large dams just by filling it with their weight of water. And when they produce lots and lots of oil from major major oilfields like right here in Long Beach where I am teaching there's a period of time of decades when the Earth was subsiding over all of that until they started reinjected water to help fill the course spaces back up and keeping it from subsiding, which they stopped about 30 years ago.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doesn't the Monterey shale formation those sort of track along the San Andreas fault?
RICHARD BEHL: Well the San Andreas Fault cuts through California which has got Monterey on both sides of it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, let me ask you quickly, Peg, are there any regulations in SB4 or in place at all to reduce the risk of earthquakes caused by fracking?
PEG MITCHELL: No, and we do not know what the risks are. That's part of the issue of why we need a moratorium, timeout to really get our hands around exactly what impact this may have before it is too late.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The bottom line to of this legislation and a lot of this discussion I think Prof. Behl is the potential amount of oil and gas that could be retrieved through this method in California. Isn't it quite substantial?
RICHARD BEHL: Yes it really is. I mean, the numbers of very poorly defined. But it is potentially quite large. And of course that's why everyone's interested, excited, worried about this. Is that previously before the last five or 10 years, we only could go to places to drill to get oil out where the oil had migrated out of the rocks in which it formed and traveled some distance into a trap that's where it concentrated and that's where oilfields were. But now the whole idea of getting oil and gas from shale rocks is saying now we have a way of getting oil and gas out of the rocks in which they formed, the stuff that is still trapped back there and that is a much broader area. So that means there's a lot more oil and gas potentially that could be extracted. California I mean, North America, the US has become an exporter right now of oil and gas. But at the same time and that means it's covering much broader areas that means restricted oilfields where we had been drilling before.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We've been hearing as Prof. Behl says, the estimates are little soft, but some people say as much as 60% of the oil and gas trapped in shale rock in the US right here in California. 60% of what you can find in the entire nation. With this much reserve potentially in our state, how can it be ignored?
PEG MITCHELL: Well you have to also look at the fact that if we were to continue to want to be the climate change leader that we say we are in California and we have a lot called A.B. 32 also from Fran briefly that requires that we reduce our emissions significantly, 80 million metric tons by 2020 I believe are the numbers, then the equivalent burning of all the oil that is in the ground in the Monterey shale field again it is soft based on estimates but they're saying roughly 15.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, that would wipe out 80 years of progress of AB 32. It would wipe out 17 years of progress of the Café standards that Pres. Obama just put into place. So basically we are taking two steps forward and one step backwards. And ultimately whether frogging is proven to be safe or not, there's other methods as well they are experimenting with like as a decision to be equally risky. The bottom line is that that oil is depending on where you get it, very dirty. We are having big fights over the Keystone pipeline and the soil is as dirty or dirtier in some places than that, then tar sands oil, so from climate change perspective overall we need to be not squandering our: high-stakes fossil fuels but really looking at a clean economy of the future.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My last question to you Peg, quickly, this is not going to be happening much in San Diego, not much racking is going to go on here. You see a lot of interest in this debate here in San Diego?
PEG MITCHELL: I think there is some interest but perhaps the wrong reasons that people don't quite connect the dots to the fact that fracking requires tremendous amounts of fresh water. Where's the water going to come from an already water starved state where we already have historical said the Sierra snowpack which is part of our water, historic lows in the Colorado River where for the first time we've cut back what is coming out of Lake Powell and we cannot afford not to be diverting water for this from other areas where it is really going to be needed as our population continues to grow.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. I want to thank my guests Prof. Richard Behl professor of geology at Cal State University in Long Beach and Peg Mitchell with San Diego Sierra Club thank you both very much.
RICHARD BEHL: Thank you.
PEG MITCHELL: It's my pleasure.