Fossil Fuel Production in Southern California: The Trajectory of Development and Current Issues

By Stephen Holle

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With the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) domestic energy production in the United States has increased operational capacity to meet US consumer demand. Fracking uses a highly pressurized solution of water, sand, and proprietary ingredients to induce fracturing or fissures deep underground, which allows natural gas and other fossil fuels to be extracted from wells. Currently, California is the 10th largest producer of natural gas in the country and with the application of fracking California will likely increase their market share and production in the coming years.

Above: Photo depicting natural gas market production by state. Photo Credit: The Energy Information Administration.

California has included natural gas production as a key component of its Intergraded Energy Policy Report (IEPR). In the 2011 211-page report the California Energy Commission (CEC) delineates the current trajectory of the energy infrastructure and future developments in California. Chapter 7 and 8 of the report assess the natural gas market as well as the forecasted natural gas demand. The CEC begins by suggesting that the natural gas market will function as a key instrument in backing up renewable technologies (CEC 87). This is crucial for California’s ambitious plan under Assembly Bill 32 to cut green house gas emission below a 1990 baseline by 2020. Natural gas is a viable candidate to support fluctuating renewable sources of energy because natural gas power plants can come online very rapidly and incorporate power into the grid when renewables are fluctuating.

Above: A map depicting fossil fuel production in southern California. Source: http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/petroleum/documents/MAP_OIL_GAS_GEOTHERMAL.PDF

Currently, there is a push for fracking in the Inglewood Oil Fields, a region that has been subjected to large amounts of oil exploitation in the past. Like all development projects in California, the potential fracking operation in the Inglewood Oil Fields is subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). However, many residents and NGO’s are alluding to the fact that the EIA is ripe with controversy and has not addressed the underlying conflicts with the potential plans. Primarily, much concern arises over the fact that the oil developer hired and paid the consulting firm to carry out the EIA, which some believe is a conflict of interest. Another issues arising from the EIA is that individuals tied to the oil and gas industry primarily carried out the peer review process.

Above: A photo illustrating the scope of proposed fracking development in the Inglewood Oil Fields. Source: http://baldwinhillsoilwatch.org/

Many opposing parties believe that the lack of independent peer review has skewed results and has not properly addressed potential long-term effects such as groundwater contamination. One of the main non-profit organizations scrutinizing Plains Explorations report is Food and Water Watch (FWW). Like many residents and critics in the area, FWW is concerned about the peer review and authors ties to the oil and gas industry (Vives 2012). Critics are also worried about the proximity of the Newport-Inglewood Fault since reports and studies have suggested that fracking near faults could potentially induce seismic activity, which could greatly effect the structural integrity of adjacent homes.

Above: Some homes in the Windsor Hills neighborhood have sweeping views of the Inglewood Oil Field operated by Plains Exploration & Production Co. Residents suspect damage on their properties is caused by hydraulic fracturing at the field. A recent study paid for by the oil company said there were no environmental or health problems caused by the fracking. The community is suspicious of the report’s findings.(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

Although representatives from the EPA and gas industry have suggested that hydraulic fracturing can be carried out in an environmentally friendly manner, many case studies allude to the fact that criticism over the Inglewood Oil Field development is relevant and should be further scrutinized by the affected community. Texas as well as other states across the country have experienced many cases of human and environmental health issues, which create areas of concern related to the unregulated nature of hydraulic fracturing. In 2010 in Dish, Texas blood and urine samples taken from residents living adjacent to hydraulic fracturing sites found that 65% of the samples contained elevated levels of toluene and xylene, which are carcinogenic compounds commonly used in fracking fluids. During that same year a Houston-based company, EOG Resources experienced a blow out that leaked 35,000 gallons of fracking fluid into a nearby state forest. Although an investigation was conducted, no fines or penalties were assessed. Wyoming has also experienced the human health effects of fracking. In 2009 the EPA found that wells in Pavillion, Wyoming were contaminated with compounds used in natural gas extraction such as 2-butoxyethanol, which can lead to a number of adverse human health effects through elevated exposure. Before the EPA had conducted studies, residents were complaining about rare cancers and miscarriages as a common occurrence within the community. Despite the critical issues of health related ailments and environmental contamination, fracking is still pursued at an unrelenting pace around the country and has minimal levels of federal oversight (Rahm 2011: 2976).

Besides immediate threats to human and environmental health, hydraulic fracturing in the Los Angeles basin also has an immense potential to increase the output of green house gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere and induce changes in climatic conditions. In a journal article published in Environmental Science and Technology Wilton Mui in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at California Institute of Technology suggests that “one of the largest sources of CH4 in the US are fugitive emissions from natural gas production and use (estimated to be 10 Teragrams (tg) or approximately 3% of the total gas produced)” (Wennberg et al. 2012). Ultimately, the study concluded that methane emissions from natural gas production and consumption are significantly higher than current estimates made by the EPA and The Southern California Gas Company. Therefore, given California’s ambitious plan to adhere to a reduction in GHG emissions, it is important to address these issues related to infrastructure if a stable climate is considered an attainable objective.

Currently, natural gas production has been a crux issue in the political and media spectrums. In California it has the potential to support intermittency associated with heavy investments in renewables, but given the uncertainty around air and water pollution as well as the potential to significantly increase the output of GHGs and contribute to climate change, natural gas production should error on the side of caution. There are many ways to compensate for grid intermittency related to renewable development. Therefore, California should consider all the options before heavily weighing its bets within the fracking sphere.

About the Author: Stephen Holle is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies.

Works Cited

Babula, Jared et al. “2011 Integrated Energy Policy Report”. California Energy Commission. 2011. Online.

California. Assembly. Public Resource Code. 2011-12 reg. sess. AB 591. Sacramento: OSP, 2011. Web.

Rahm, Dianne. “Regulating Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale Gas Plays: The Case of Texas”. Energy Policy 39 (2011): 2971-2981. Online.

Vives, Ruben. “Baldwin Hills fracking study is questioned; An environmental impact report only deepens tensions between community and an oil company”. Latimes.com. 15 Oct. 2012. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/us/pennsylvania-omitted-poison-data-in-water-report.html?ref=earth

Wennberg, Paul. “On the Sources of Methane to the Los Angeles Atmosphere”. Environmental Science and Technology 46 (2012): 9282-9289. Online.