Ojai fracking panel agrees: more transparency please!

Over the last four or so months I put together a panel on fracking for the Ojai Chautauqua, a centrist group that holds public forums/discussions on controversial issues at the Ojai Valley Inn. (Think I'm beginning to learn how to do it: This is the third such panel I put together this year, and the second I moderated.)

What happened? General agreement among panelists: more transparency please.

One of the panelists, a former petroleum engineer named Don Clarke, who has been touring the country for the Obama administration and the National Academy of Sciences on the subject of induced seismicity and fracking/injection wells, introduced a concept he picked up in Canada — the Social License to Operate. Meaning that oil companies need the consent of the governed, essentially, and if the process is convoluted or mysterious and the findings alarming, then the license may not be granted. (It's more specific than that: check out the link — but the point is a local permit is not enough.) 

Here's the story from the Ventura County Star. Funny to me the way I am quoted, but not inaccurate, I must admit. 

[OJAI, Calif. – The word fracking has become a red flag for people concerned about one of the practices of oil-well stimulation, according to Kit Stolz, moderator for the Ojai Chautauqua: The Future of Fracking.

“How do we deal with such a complicated issue?” Stolz asked a panel of five speakers with various ties to the oil industry on Sunday at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.

The panelists agreed on the need for greater openness on the part of oil companies about the process of extracting oil from the ground.

“There is a deep mistrust of oil companies. If (fracking) is safe, then let’s find out more about it. What chemicals are they using? By building transparency we hope to lower the temperature,” said Henry Stern, a legislative aide to state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. Pavley sponsored the highly criticized Senate Bill 4, which Stern helped write.

Senate Bill 4, in part, calls for extensive scientific analysis of fracking by the California Department of Natural Resources. The bill requires greater oversight of various oil extraction practices, as well as more regulation of wells, including permitting and providing information about the chemicals used, source of water used and plans for disposal of that water.

Panelist Craig Nicholson, a geophysicist from UC Santa Barbara, noted that while there has been a correlation between fracking and an increase in earthquakes in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Midwestern oil fields, the opposite is true in California.

Showing a chart that detailed the earthquake rates compared with fracking wells in Kern County, the only California county where hydraulic water injection — or fracking — is widely used, Nicholson said there has actually been a drop in seismic activity.

Don Clarke, a petroleum geologist, said fracking essentially involves using liquid with various chemicals that is injected underground to fracture rock and release the oil. Other oil extraction methods include injecting hydrochloric acid down wells to dissolve rock.

Brian Segee, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura, contended that there is little oversight of old wells in Ventura County, many of which have permits that go back decades.

Stern pointed out that SB 4 calls for all wells that are fracking to get a permit, even those older wells. “If you’re fracking an old well, you need a permit,” he said.

Stolz, a freelance writer for The Star, said one of the biggest arguments for fracking and increased oil drilling is job creation. He pointed to a University of Southern California study that says using hydraulic fracturing to access oil in the Monterey Formation shale deposit would yield 15 billion barrels of oil and create 500,000 new jobs.

Dave Quast, California director of Energy In Depth, an advocacy group of independent oil producers, said those are “very optimistic” numbers. He added that most oil companies agree that greater openness about their practices will go a long way toward appeasing public unease.

Tom Krause, of the Ojai Chautauqua, ended the session by thanking the 150 or so people who gathered to pose questions or listen.

“This is a community-based project about how people can get together for civic discourse,” said Krause, who said the fracking panel is the third event sponsored by the group.

He concluded by asking people to send in nominations for other topics. For information about the Ojai Chautauqua, call 231-5974 or go online to http://www.ojaichautauqua.org.]

There is a fairly substantial uptick in local production in Ventura County since 2007, from about 7.2 million barrels a year, to about 8.9 million barrels. But it's impossible to know how much, if any, of that uptick can be attributed to fracking — or at least none of the panelists could answer that question.  

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