I attended a briefing this week on a study, hailed by the author as the first comprehensive look at the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and it pretty much confirmed what has been seen in other, more targeted studies – that energy development using fracking and horizontal drilling technologies is safe, doesn’t threaten water supplies or cause earthquakes.

inglewood_oil_fieldThe 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field in the heart of Los Angeles County was discovered by Standard Oil in 1924 and has been operated by Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP) since late 2002. As a result of a legal settlement, PXP paid independent contractor Cardno ENTRIX to study hydraulic fracturing’s impacts. Among the key findings:

  • Groundwater – Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Though the area gets its drinking water from remote sources such as the Colorado River, groundwater nonetheless must meet drinking water standards – and does.

  • Seismic activity – Three types of monitoring – deep underground microseismic, readings from a permanent Cal Tech accelerometer and surface vibration efforts – found that from before-and-after measurements of vibration and seismicity, fracking had no detectable effect on vibration and did not induce earthquakes.

  • Well integrity – Tests conducted before, during and after the use of hydraulic fracturing showed no effects on the integrity of the steel and cement casings that enclose oil wells.

  • Air emissions – Emissions associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing were within standards set by the regional air quality authority.

Dan Tormey, hydrologist, geochemist, civil engineer and the report’s lead author, made the presentation on the study's findings:

“The first generation of studies were things like the movie ‘Gasland,’ blogs on the Internet – very widely distributed, and when I first gave this presentation to the local community one of the commenters said, well, ‘Gasland’ is our facts, and you’re trying to present these as your facts. I found that really interesting because the first-generation studies were really a data-free zone, and the purpose of this study was to be very data rich.”

The Inglewood field is representative of the enormous, underlying Monterey Shale play, which has multiple, undulating geological layers bisected in places by the Newport-Inglewood fault. The Monterey lacks the more uniform “layer cake” belts of other shale plays, presenting special challenges to energy development. Tormey said fault lines tend to compartmentalize groundwater deposits.

The study’s findings, reviewed by county officials, are an important step in the knowledge of fracking’s compatibility with environmental goals, which is a key to industry gaining community trust. Though the results are specific to a unique shale play, they have application to the broader debate over hydraulic fracturing and shale energy development. Chiefly this: Safely and responsibly done, the production of natural gas and/or oil with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling doesn’t threaten water supplies and can coexist with communities – as the Inglewood field does.

Tormey said he hopes the study will help areas where modern hydraulic fracturing is relatively new to move beyond misinformation and misconceptions that have stymied energy development in some places:

“The purpose of studies like this is to accelerate through the fear stage so that we’ve already got a body of fact that can be drawn upon. People will still have their values, they will still have what their guiding principles are, but at least we’re now in a data-rich zone instead of – in the New York case – a data-free zone.”

This is important, because the choices we make will decide whether America’s vast shale reserves will make us more energy secure, which will make the U.S. more secure generally. Tormey:

“The oil and gas development that’s been facilitated by these new technologies – hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, the ability to precisely locate within the formation where you’re drawing from – has brought undeniable benefits to the United States. In 2009 we became the largest natural gas producer in the world, four years after everybody was convinced we have to import natural gas right now. … In oil we’re the third-largest producer in the world and growing. The sort of geo-strategic benefits that that energy independence provides us is really one of the major benefits of moving forward with this …”