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Naomi Seligman Headshot

Not So Fracking Fast

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If you were to look only at top headlines these days you would be convinced that hydraulic fracking is the cutting-edge technology. It will safely and quickly unlock a century's worth of American energy, creating millions of new jobs and billions of state revenue.

This would also seem to be the point of view of many in the Golden State right now, who have gone so far as to opine that not only is fracking good public policy, it's nothing less than a second California Gold Rush.

But you know the old adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Fracking is a petroleum extraction procedure during which a mix of water, sand and different chemicals are injected at extremely high speeds underground to crack open rock formations so that oil and natural gas can be removed. This is not a simple practice.

While fracking has been done in California for many years, new advances in the technology of horizontal drilling have opened up sizable energy deposits in many parts of the nation, most notably in North Dakota's Bakken Shale and Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.

With all due respect to the great Peace Garden and Keystone States, California isn't South Dakota or Pennsylvania.

There is so much more we need to learn -- not only about the technology and its impact on our environment, air and coastline, but also about cost, reliability and whether it would deliver anything like the benefits promised by its supporters.

While the state is right to focus on energy efficiency and the upgrade to current delivery systems, fracking deserves strict scrutiny. And after my state's disasters with energy deregulation that opened the door to widespread manipulation by Enron and other corrupt energy traders, it would seem the least we can do as policymakers is proceed with caution.

That is why California is exploring the best ways to oversee fracking. Of special concern are the drilling practices already taking place that we should be much more vigilant about and make sure comply with smart regulations.

For example, we need to be sure that we guarantee full disclosure of what chemicals are used in the high-pressure process, how they're removed from the ground and the manner in which they will likely be dumped back into the environment. This isn't just happening in less-populated rural areas, fracking is taking place in urban and populated areas where pollution of drinking water is a serious concern.

But Californians cannot be the sole watchdogs alone. We also need baseline fracking regulations at the federal level. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of the Interior's proposed rules, released just last month, fall short given the myriad of health and environmental concerns around fracking. Absent federal rules, a patchwork of state regulations leaves the door open for natural gas companies to frack in places outside of California where transparency and safety requirements are wholly insufficient.

California courts have acknowledged the federal government's lack of oversight on this issue. In April, U.S. Magistrate Paul S. Grewal of the Northern District of California ruled that the U.S. Department of the Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act in 2011 by failing to appropriately assess the risks of fracking before granting leases on 2,700 acres of California land for oil and gas extraction.

Specifically, Judge Grewal stated that the Bureau of Land Management unreasonably relied upon outdated data and "Rather than engaging in this reality by at least considering what impact might result from fracking on the leased lands, whatever its ultimate conclusion, BLM chose simply to ignore it."

Right now, the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources is conducting a series of workshops around the state designed to kickstart a collaborative process of input and develop a formal process for fracking going forward. But as of today, no one in California is currently monitoring, regulating or issuing permits for fracking.

And that's just not okay.

Californians need to know a lot more about natural gas fracking, right about now.