The Future of Fracking in California

Billions of barrels of oil lie in the Monterey Shale. The windfall from tapping into that deeply buried cache could be mind-blowing – so could the damage.

Barry Yeoman

With all the uncertainties about drilling the Monterey, how should California proceed? Last year, the state legislature passed a measure, called Senate Bill 4, allowing hydraulic fracturing and acid stimulation (another extraction process) while also putting in place more regulation than exists today. It also mandated a study of the “hazards and risks” of these techniques that is due by January 1, 2015. The new law disappointed the oil industry, which considers its requirements burdensome and unnecessary. And it disappointed environmentalists, who wanted a moratorium until the safety issues are better understood.

Hull considers the call for a moratorium “draconian”—an overreaction to what he considers modest and well-managed risks. “You would not do anything of a technological nature if you were required to first prove the absence of any risk, of all risk,” Hull says. “That’s silly.”

Paula Getzelman finds herself craving a middle ground between the absolutists. “If we really put our minds to it, we could come up with a method to extract oil safely,” she says. Some scientists agree with her. Until that method is developed, though, she believes a moratorium is the best interim measure—“to allow time to gather some evidence, whichever way it might go, and allow for more reasonable discussion on both sides.”

With a large enough research investment, Paula says, we might find a way to tap the Monterey that’s both lucrative for the oil industry and protective of the environment and human health. If that happens, she’ll be all for it. “But if, in fact, people who say it can’t be done safely are correct,” she says, “you can’t go back and unring that bell.”

Barry Yeoman won a National Magazine Award for his exposé of the poultry industry for Southern Exposure. He has been honored by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of “the best unsung investigative journalists working in print in the United States.” This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization.

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