To frack or not to frack?

By Supervisor Dave Roberts

More than 30 wells in San Diego County could be using a process called “fracking” to extract petroleum products from far underground, according to a panelist who spoke during a frank and lively discussion I hosted earlier this month at the County Administration Center.

We already know that fracking is taking place in Northern California and in other states along the Colorado River, an important source of our drinking water. Yet, what effect fracking has on San Diego County’s water and energy resources remains open to debate.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ involves drilling and injecting chemicals and water at extreme pressure into the earth to harvest petroleum and natural gas from the depths.

During our three-hour forum, five panelists spoke to the issue of fracking: Damon Nagami, senior attorney and director of the Southern California Ecosystems Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Ken Weinberg, Director of Water Resources, San Diego County Water Authority; Matt Wiedlin of Wiedlin & Associates, and David Nylander of Noble Americas Energy Solutions.

Logan Jenkins, a well-known U-T San Diego columnist, moderated the discussion.

Mr. Wiedlin pointed out that at 100 feet in San Diego County, drillers would likely hit granite. Granite does not have much ability to store water, making it difficult and too costly to frack in San Diego. A local geologist added that San Diego County is not known as a source for petroleum products, unless they are offshore.

Advocates for a moratorium on fracking noted that petroleum companies use ‘proprietary chemicals’ in the process of fracking. To allow companies to use chemicals – which they do not disclose to the public – anywhere near sources of drinking or bathing water is unacceptable, they said.

Yet there is great value in achieving energy independence. In addition, fracking now accounts for a higher percentage of petroleum recovery than ever before. According to Mr. Nylander, fracking helps to keep down the price of natural gas. Without fracking, he said, the price we pay at the pump “could easily double,” he said.

Companies that frack face stringent state and federal laws. But they are not as stringent as you might think. For instance, Mr. Nagami said, no law requires companies to establish existing water quality levels in an area before they drill. Energy explorers should be required to do that, he said, so regulators can “compare water quality numbers during and after drilling.”

Opponents warn that fracking can undermine soil stability and may in fact, contribute to earthquakes. An oil company video played prior to the discussion disputed that claim. The video showed that after fracking operations are finished, the company restores the environment and fills the fissures caused by fracking.

Panelists took questions submitted by a crowd of more than 100 people. Should a moratorium should be put in place? What effect could whether fracking have on irrigated crops?

Clearly, the issue of fracking will be debated for some time. I planned my forum with the purpose of providing the public with information on an important subject. We achieved exactly that.

Dave Roberts represents the Third District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.