Environment & Science

Little fracking, but plenty of 'acidizing' used at LA, Orange County oil fields

THUMS islands, man-made sites off the coast of Long Beach used to access the Wilmington Oil Field, are the site of acidizing, well techniques now tracked by regional air regulators concerned about possible health and environmental impacts.
THUMS islands, man-made sites off the coast of Long Beach used to access the Wilmington Oil Field, are the site of acidizing, well techniques now tracked by regional air regulators concerned about possible health and environmental impacts.
Donielle/via Flickr

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While public concerns remain about unconventional oil techniques like hydraulic fracturing, data gathered over 18 months by local air regulators reveal little fracking in the complex picture of oil extraction activities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. 

Fracking is a well stimulation technique where petroleum operators shoot chemicals, sand and water into the ground to force oil and gas to the surface. Oil and gas companies reported no instances of fracking in the LA basin during the previous 12 months, and just 14 fracking events in the first six months of the reporting program carried out by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.  

Instead, the reports describe over 150 instances of "gravel packing" during 2014. Gravel packing is a technique for well operation and stimulation where gravel, water and chemicals are shot through a well bore to keep it clear of fine sediment.

Companies also reported more than 250 instances of "acidizing," where injections of acid clean out wells, eat away at existing rock holes, and create new ones. About a quarter of  the reports the agency received involved unspecified techniques. But oil operations are required to list hydraulic fracturing if they employ the extraction method. 

Most reported well stimulation activity happened around the Wilmington Oil Field. That includes man-made drilling islands, built off the coast of Long Beach for the purpose of accessing the field, operated by the THUMS Long Beach Company, as well as on-shore operations of the Tidelands Oil Production Company. THUMS and Tidelands are both subsidiaries of California Resources Corporation, a company spun off as a separate entity from Occidental Petroleum earlier this year. 

Chemicals used in gravel packing and acidizing can cause air pollution and health risks, which is why regional air regulators expressed interest in tracking them. The South Coast AQMD's rule requiring disclosure around those activities is the strongest of its kind in the state. Anti-fracking activists have complained that state rules are too lax, and subject to abuse

Regional air officials have said they’ll decide whether and how to regulate oil and gas operations in the middle of 2015, once they've gathered two full years of data.