Fracking summit draws crowd at UC Merced

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comNovember 1, 2013 

With new state regulations in the works on a controversial oil and gas extraction technique, a group of legislators, industry representatives and environmentalists gathered Friday at UC Merced to debate the risks and benefits associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves breaking up underground rock formations with a mixture of chemicals and water.

A bill principally written by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, was signed into law in September and sought to balance economic opportunities associated with drilling and environmental protection, particularly maintaining agricultural safety and groundwater.

“The San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest shale deposits in the U.S., and fracking and water protection are critically important issues to our area,” Gray said Friday.

Gray’s bill includes some of the strictest regulations on fracking in the country and was criticized by many in the fossil fuel industry, including the Western States Petroleum Association.

The bill was also criticized by many environmental groups seeking a ban on the practice.

On Friday, nearly 100 people gathered on the college campus for a daylong summit and debate on the risks and rewards associated with fracking. One provision of the new regulations essentially requires information on groundwater quality collected in fracking studies to be sent to UC Merced for analysis.

The event was sponsored by the nonpartisan Independent Voter Project and sought to feature points of view from all sides of the hot-button issue, spokeswoman Cadee Condit-Gray said. She is married to Assemblyman Gray.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, discussed potential job growth and other economic benefits that could come with further oil exploration in California. She cited recent studies indicating that more than 15billion barrels of oil could be produced through exploration of the Monterey Shale Formation, a 1,750-square-mile area of underground rock running through the center of California.

“California needs a lot of transportation fuel – petroleum – to move around the 38million people that live here,” Reheis-Boyd said. “And crude oil production has been declining for a long time. If we don’t produce it here, we rely more on foreign sources, while producing it here reduces that reliance.”

Reheis-Boyd said finding a way to produce oil in California “the right way, the safe way” is critical to the state’s future.

Opponents such as the Sierra Club’s Merced Group believe there is no such thing as “safe fracking.”

“We heard a number of elected officials talk about (safe fracking), but no one really defined what they meant,” said Gary Lasky, a Sierra Club spokesman. “They say fracking has been going on for over 40 years, but what they’re doing now is not your father’s fracking.”

Lasky said changes to the process, particularly the addition of “acids and other volatile compounds now used” have raised troubling questions about the safety to groundwater supplies and agriculture.

“They talk about safety on the (petroleum) well itself, but they won’t talk about how they’re disposing of that toxic waste,” Lasky said. “The public deserves to know what happens to the those chemicals once they’ve been put into the ground.”

Gray said the purpose of Friday’s summit was to provide as much balanced information as possible on the “highly controversial issue,” which will likely be a hot topic in California, and the San Joaquin Valley in particular, for many years.

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209)385-2482.

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