UCLA fracking forum focuses on science and policy guiding oil and gas production

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Jeff Boggs, responsible for the drilling at Consol Energy poses in front of one of the company's Horizontal Gas Drilling Rigs exploring the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012. Shale gas is natural gas stored deep underground in fine-grained sedimentary rocks. It can be extracted using a process known as hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking" – which involves injecting massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure to crack the shale and release the gas trapped inside.

As battle lines are drawn in California’s debate over hydraulic fracturing, petroleum engineers, local politicians, the state’s top regulators and scientists met at UCLA this week to talk fracking – the controversial method used to squeeze oil and gas out of rock. 

The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists sponsored the mostly peaceful two-day meeting to develop recommendations about how to study and regulate the practice. The group’s stated goal is to put more information into the hands of communities near oil wells.

“Scientific evidence is an important part of public policy decisions, and that means scientific evidence not for a few,” said Andrew Rosenberg, who runs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. “The public needs to have access, it needs to be open and transparent decision making, and people need to have evidence in an understandable form so that they can make societal decisions.”

The meeting comes as California’s oil and gas regulators are working on new rules to monitor, and perhaps control, fracking. A draft set of regulations is expected from the Department of Conservation later this year. 

At UCLA this week, the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus, previewed some rules the state is considering: “More water being protected, more engagement by the regional boards, more pre-monitoring ahead of the curve, more transparency on a number of fronts, so we know way ahead of time and can take action before any wells are contaminated."

But while appetites may be whetted for new action, nearly a dozen proposals on fracking died feeble deaths in Sacramento this year. Just one remains standing: SB4, introduced by State Senator Fran Pavley, a Democrat from Calabasas. Pavley’s bill would tighten monitoring requirements for using fracking to stimulate wells.

Participants broke out into groups to tackle questions about the depth of scientific research, the best ways to incorporate research into policy, and how to balance trade secret concerns with public health risks.

Southern California perspectives on fracking were represented by a portion of forum participants, including an official from SoCal Gas, a Ventura County supervisor and Culver City’s vice mayor. 

A general consensus emerged from the science and technology group "that fracking can be safe," said Kevin Hurst, a former science advisor to the Obama administration.

“We agreed that every form of energy production involves risk, and in general risk cannot be completely eliminated. But modern society has learned ways to manage these risks," Hurst said.

Several experts in Hurst's group called for more robust science to establish impacts to air, geology and water. 

“We need more information about how much water is being used, where it’s being sourced and really more dialogue with local communities about how much water they need to take,” said Monika Freyman, a water analyst from Ceres. “And not just at present in this year but five years from now, perhaps 10 years from now."

Meanwhile, some legal scholars argued that officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have authority over fracking that they don’t exercise.

“Congress has already empowered EPA to use the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to get at chemical use in the oil and gas industry, to get more disclosure,” said Kate Konschnick, who runs the environmental law program at Harvard University.  “We know that Congress has already given EPA authority under the clean air act to require green completions to reduce methane leakage at all wells, even though EPA has only chosen to regulate and require green completions at gas wells where gas is the only product you were going after.”

Several participants from Southern California reminded their colleagues that this state has a unique geological and political landscape when it comes to fracking. Wells in Los Angeles can be in densely populated urban areas, and operators tend to focus on oil production, forcing dark, sour crude out from rock fissures, rather than natural gas.

Angela Johnson-Meszaros, lawyer for Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, said that helps explain why environmental justice advocates seek more disclosure about fracking fluid, the mix of water, sediment and chemicals used in fracking to stimulate well production.

The oil and gas industry, on the other side of that argument, seeks to protect against further disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluid. Petroleum producers argue the names of chemicals are trade secrets. But Konschnick pointed out that what’s meant by "trade secret" can be conflicting, even just among well operators who are using the same fracking fluid.

“And at some of those wells, three ingredients would be listed, and then three would be called trade secrets,” Konschnick says. “The exact same product fracked in a well a county over, a month earlier, all six ingredients were listed. It’s no longer a trade secret. They’ve published it on a website available to their competitors and everyone else so we’re just allowing a lot of this to slip through the cracks.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists hopes to issue recommendations from the meeting before summer’s end. 

This story has been updated.

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