Fracking in California? Why not?

When I was a kid, I did some fracking of my own. In my Orange County back yard, I would take the garden hose, and at full pressure, I could start a hole in the ground, and as bits of dirt would come out, the hose would continue to go in. Dirty water would come out as I dug, and the hose just kept going down! I must have burrowed a 20 foot deep hole in my backyard, but only about 2 inches wide. And to my amazement, when I pulled out the hose, the remaining water would just sink quickly away. If I added more, it would just sink – you could see it go down!

Of course, the water was just returning to the ground water table, perhaps to be sucked up again by a well, as most of our water there (I later learned) came from ground sources. So I guess I wasn’t really wasting – and who cared? This was the 60’s after all, and there was plenty to go around.

Move forward many years, and the brilliant engineers for the oil and gas companies have taken my clever idea and expanded it many times over. But their wells are dug thousands of feet deep, and also move laterally. And the water – which is also fresh water, but mixed with sand and chemicals to make it more effective – is injected at 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure to break up the rock, and release un-tapped oil and natural gas.

Damien Luzzo

Damien Luzzo

The American River Democrats were proud to welcome special guest speaker Damien Luzzo to our March meeting. Damien is probably the most active and prolific organizer of the anti-fracking movement for the Environmental Caucus of the California Democratic Party.

He studied physics and philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, and is now an Assembly District 4 delegate for the CA Democratic Party. Since 2012, he has been the President of SaveWithSunlight; a non-profit organization working to streamline rooftop solar installations. He is a member of the Progressive Democrats of America’s Climate Action Team, and much more.

Damien shared that two of the crucial impacts on California’s water from the practice of fracking, or “hydrolic fracturing”, are waste and contamination. It takes about five million gallons of fresh water to drill and frack a single well – some use over ten million. So while we ordinary citizens do our best by lettting our lawns go brown, skipping a few flushes, and maybe even jumping in a cold shower, all our efforts are literally a drop in the bucket compared to the water wasted in fracking.


But wait, doesn’t the water pumped in get back to us? Yes and no, and that’s the other part of the problem. The water going into the wells is already contaminated by the chemicals added in to make it more effective, and is blasted into the deep rock, releasing heavy metals and more deep earth chemicals. So the water that does come up is contaminated, and not suited to drinking or irrigation. It is then usually “treated” in evaporation pools, meaning it sits there to evaporate away, leaving toxic sludge behind. It may also be sent to treatment plants, but that still leaves the waste material, and all too often the waste water leaks into the environment through runoff into streams, lakes, or into the ground water.

But not all of the water comes out. Much of the contaminated liquid remains in the earth, and affects the aquifers and ground water tables, which feeds the wells that farms and municipal users need to access when river or reservoir water is not available. Arsenic, strontium, selenium, and barium are some of the harmful chemicals that have shown up in groundwater after fracking has been done nearby.

Did you know that fracking is even done in the ocean? Well, no harm – there’s plenty of water to use out there, right? No! I asked Damien about that, and he shared the amazing fact that to frack an ocean well, fresh water is pumped from land sources into the ocean! Apparently salt water is not effective in fracking, so we in effect “resalinate” our fresh water, and bring all the contamination straight to the ocean environment.

But hey, at least fracking helps us access natural gas, which is cleaner than burning coal, right? No, not really. First of all, most California fracking, which currently goes in in Kern County (Bakersfield area), is done for oil, not gas. And it is the heavier shale oil, like Canada’s notorious Keystone Pipeline stuff – not the light sweet crude. (And unlike oil haven Texas, we don’t even have an oil severance tax!) But methane gas still emerges from these wells, and the efforts to contain it are notoriously error prone. Methane, being 80 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, makes a 3% well leakage turn natural gas power worse than coal burning, as far as climate impact. And the wells tend to leak more like 17% than 3%.

And what about earthquakes? We’re Californians right, we’re used to a little seismic activity now and then. Maybe so, but do we want to make it worse? Areas along the heavy faultlines, like San Francisco and LA try to prepare for quakes, but they are never welcome. And fracking has been shown to dramatically increase earthquakes in areas that were never prone to them before. Oklahoma, Damien pointed out, now has three times the frequency of quakes than California. And Kansas, West Virginia, and good old Texas are getting quakes where they never had them before, thanks to the major geologic disruption fracking is causing. Does California want to reclaim the crown of earthquake activity?

A recent anti-fracking rally at the state capital

A recent anti-fracking rally at the state capital

The problems with fracking are myriad, and too much to list in detail here, but has a wealth of information to share. Luckily, in California we have a Democratic controlled legislature and Governor Jerry Brown, who recognizes the environmental dangers and is actively leading the state in anti-global warming measures. Not so fast – the Governor has shown unbelievable support for fracking, and the legislature has done nothing to stop it either. True, we have more transparency in the process thanks to them, but that’s not enough. Even the best politicians often rely on money from big donors, like oil companies, which often silences their opposition.

But some of California’s counties have taken their own steps. San Benito and Mendocino have banned fracking, and others, like Monterey and Los Angeles are considering it. People concerned about fracking should urge their local, state and federal representatives to put an end to the process, and push even more for alternative energy resources. Writing letters, making calls, and sending emails can be very effective, and lets your representatives know you care. Especially Governor Brown, who should be on the right side of the debate!

Ken Kiunke, Communications Secretary American River Democrats 3/29/15

Please click on comments below to see more information from Damien Luzzo:


  1. Damien Luzzo says:

    I do want to make three clarifications for the sake of accuracy. The 17% leakage figure was based leakage rates measured in LA and Ventura County. The national leakage rate is somewhere between 4 and 8 percent. While a lot of California’s oil is sour heavy crude, there is a spectrum of oil types in California ranging from light, sweet crude (ex:Ventura) to heavier, sour crude (ex:Kern). Finally, the wastewater that isn’t evaporated or recycled is usually dumped into wastewater injection wells. This disposal process is causing a significant spike in earthquakes in regions across the United States that are not known for their seismic activity. Wastewater injection wells in California are under investigation right now for potentially contaminating clean drinking water aquifers.

    Thank you so much for having me there to speak. It was a pleasure to meet all of you.

    • Damien Luzzo says:

      One more thing. While we are using 4 to 8 million gallons to fracture shale formations around the country, in California, fracking and acidizing do not require millions of gallons of water. First, fracking for oil uses less water than fracking for natural gas. Secondly, when companies are using methods like acidization, they are using less water, and replacing that with Hydroflouric and Hydrochloric acid. Finally, many of our current fracking wells are not using high-volume fracking methods that require millions of gallons of water, but rather, we are using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to loosen up the oil beneath. When the Monterey Shale becomes frack-able (the complex geology makes it difficult), then we will see millions of gallons of water (that California doesn’t have to spare) in order to get the oil out of the shale. While we may not be using millions of gallons of water per frack in California, we are using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that California is running out of. And the inability to properly recycle that water is extremely problematic.