The City Council of Los Angeles, second-most populous metro in the United States, voted 10-0 today to prohibit hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and other “unconventional” deep-underground drilling methods to produce petroleum until the practices can be proven to be safe. L.A. is the largest metropolis in the United States to do so.
According to Jeff Spross, a reporter at ThinkProgress.org and former intern at The Guardian:
“Today’s vote was prompted by the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which decided on Tuesday to bring the matter up for a vote. Four towns in Colorado instituted similar bans back in November of 2013, and Mora County in New Mexico became the first full county to impose a ban in May. California lawmakers are also pushing for [a] state-wide ban, based on concerns that the large amounts of freshwater [consumed by] fracking will further stress the state’s already drought-wracked drinking supplies.”
The L.A. decision affects much more than one huge city and its environs. By passing it, the council has officially recognized that hydraulic fracturing has not yet been proven safe or healthy. The decision will likely resound through the nation, raising a yellow “caution” flag within all areas where fracking and disposal of fracking waste fluids are under debate.
Fracking’s safety has been maintained, with varying degrees of success, by drillers in fracking states such as Texas (Barnett Shale) and Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Marcellus Shale) and by Energy Tomorrow–the American Petroleum Institute, national trade association for all the “people of America’s oil and natural gas industry” who tout “clean” natural gas and “safe” drilling practices.
Those in the energy industry have long contended that hydraulic fracturing is safe. That’s the thrust of the API’s pricey and long-running evening news television ads.
Energy Tomorrow claims that “Unlike many countries, our Congress puts much of [the deep shale petroleum resources] off-limits. A majority of Americans say that should change. Today’s technology [hydraulic fracturing] allows us to tap these resources and protect the environment. So let’s put America’s oil and natural gas to work for Americans.”
Those in the industry, political office, and the population who oppose fracking cite many scientists who have said that fracking can contaminate groundwater, which comes from wells and is used for drinking, farming, and many other purposes. A study published in December in the journal Endocrinology linked surface and ground water samples in Garfield County, Colorado, to elevated levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which have been linked to infertility, birth defects, and cancer. Water samples from the Colorado River, which drains this region, also manifested fracking chemicals. Water from the Colorado powers 3 million homes, nourishes 15% of our crops, and provides drinking water for one in 12 Americans.
Californians against fracking also point out that the mining practice might cause further earthquakes in a region that is already seismically active. The San Andreas Fault, which runs about 35 miles northeast of Los Angeles, produces a huge (magnitude 6) earthquake approximately once every 22 years. A March 2006 study by Yuri Fialko of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the respected journal Nature found that “observed strain rates confirm that the SAF is approaching the end of its interseismic recurrence.” In other words, the next earthquake in California above magnitude 6 is expected to occur in the southern part of the state at some time within the near future.
As we reported a few weeks ago in PlanetSave, in 2011 scientists first conclusively linked hydraulic fracturing to earthquakes in Ohio and Texas. The Republican governor of Kansas has just convened a task force that will develop a plan for increased earthquake activity “possibly related to Kansas oil and gas activities,” and the Hawaii Senate is beginning hearings on a bill that would ban the mining technique throughout the state. Vermont already has such a ban. Texas is also investigating the link. Communities in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York have initiated or established local fracking bans. Connecticut is considering outlawing disposal of used fracking liquids in the state.
Further complicating the issue is the longstanding, now critical drought in the states west of the Rockies. A recent report by the sustainability nonprofit Ceres found that 96% of fracking wells in California adjoin areas struggling with drought and stressed water resources. The terrible irony of fracking is that it uses enormous amounts of fresh water, thus destroying the natural resource we need–and the industry needs–most. Nearly half (47%) of recently fracked oil and gas wells in the U.S. are in regions with high or extremely high water stress (see map above from Ceres study).
In these regions, more than 80% of the available water has already been allocated this year to municipal, industrial, and agricultural use. Reportedly, fracking there has already started to degrade the local ecosystems, viability of communities, and health of people living nearby. Last fall, the California Assembly required drillers to disclose the chemicals they use in the process of hydraulic fracturing. Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 4 in September to establish “strong environmental protections and transparency requirements” on the mining technique.
At today’s meeting, Council members Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz introduced the fracking delay proposal. After its unanimous approval, the Council directed City Attorney Mike Feuer to draft a zoning ordinance that would impose the moratorium at oil/gas wells and fields within city limits. When Feuer’s office drafts the bill, the Council will vote again to finalize the legislation.
We’ll leave the last word to the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which commented on the matter back last May, even before many of these studies came out:
“It’s worth waiting… for better information before allowing significant increases in fracking. The oil will still be there, as will the demand for it. For the long term, it’s worth noting that although the Monterey Shale [which underlies California] is believed to be by far the nation’s largest source of recoverable oil, all 15 billion barrels would fulfill the nation’s energy needs for only three years.”