Worried over the potential consequences for their families due to a controversial oil extraction technique used by California oil companies, a group consisting of Culver City residents and environmental advocates are asking state officials to prohibit hydraulic fracturing throughout the state.
Known more commonly as fracking, the oil extraction procedure has been banned in Vermont and proponents of outlawing fracking say the technique is fraught with unintended, potentially harmful consequences.
“There are new techniques being used with fracking, experiments which are not appropriate to be taken in earthquake prone California, and certainly not in heavily populated areas,” said Crystal Alexander, a member of an ad hoc organizing committee that favors banning fracking.
“While we would in concept agree and applaud the industry’s efforts in experimentation to develop new extraction methods, using high pressure fracturing of rock in a well known fault region is egregious to the highest degree.”
The Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) held a workshop on fracking at Culver City City Hall on June 12 as part of an information-gathering initiative for potential regulation on the procedure.
Members of the ad hoc committee and other anti-fracking supporters held a demonstration outside the council chambers, where state oil regulators and others were meeting.
Plains, Exploration and Production, an oil and gas company that operates in the Inglewood Oilfield outside Culver City, said last year that it does not engage in the controversial oil extraction process.
Alexander pointed out that in addition to the problems associated with fracking, there has been one instance in Culver City were oil wells that are no longer being drilled have caused problems that could have been catastrophic.
“Abandoned oil wells leak, too. Remember the Boneyard Dog Park in Culver City had to be shut down for months so the oil wells beneath it could be capped, for a second time, because they started to visibly leak on the soil there,” she noted.
“Put succinctly, the new fracking techniques have not been proven to be safe and therefore should be banned until such proof can be established and verified by independent members of the scientific community.”
Alexander was referring to closure of the city’s dog park following the Sept. 28, 2010 discovery of a leak from an abandoned oil well owned by the Atlantic Oil Company, which is no longer in existence. PXP is Atlantic Oil’s representative.
During the repair work on the well, PXP found a second well that was leaking and offered to pay for any remediation costs associated with repairing the wells.
PXP Vice President of Environmental Health, Safety and Governmental Affairs Steven Rusch confirmed last year that his company does not use the much- debated procedure.
“In Baldwin Hills, PXP is using high-rate gravel packing, which is very different than hydraulic fracking. High-rate gravel packing is very similar to groundwater wells that are completed in sand aquifers,” Rusch explained. “It involves the pumping of water, gravel and a small amount of additives (less than 1%) down the well to prevent sand in the formation from plugging the well.
“The mixture is placed within an approximate 10-foot radius of the well. This is very different from hydraulic fracking, where the fluid can be pushed out thousands of feet from the well.”
Mayor Andrew Weissman did not offer an opinion on fracking but said the city’s first duty is to protect its residents’ health and safety.
DOGGR spokesman Dan Drysdale told the News that PXP recently conducted test hydraulic fracturing operations on two Los Angeles wells: VIC-635, an existing well, and VIC 1-330, a new well.
“Both of those were voluntarily reported on the www.fracfocus.org website,” Drysdale added.
Alexander was not swayed by PXP’ claims.
“A rose by any other name is still a rose, in this case a very dirty one,” she countered. “Whether PXP and the industry want to call it ‘well stimulation’ or ‘gravel packing’ or ‘horizontal drilling,’ the basic facts are that any process that is hydraulic fracturing uses a huge amount of water, laced with a chemical stew to make it run taster through the well and build up enough pressure to fracture the rock and thus extract the oil and gas.”
Drysdale said high-rate gravel packing is not the same as fracking.
“High rate gravel pack is a completion technique that forces the gravel (really just sand that is slightly larger than the formation material) into the formation to about 20 to 30 feet maximum from the well bore. This is different than hydraulic fracturing, which forces proppant into the formation for hundreds of feet,” he explained. “So, gravel packing is much more localized and is considered as a completion as compared to hydraulic fracturing, which is considered as well stimulating.”
“There doesn’t appear to be a unified definition within the industry for fracking, although the scientific community is coming close to developing one,” Alexander countered. “The bottom line is no matter what words are used to describe the process, the potential damage is the same to our health and safety.”
Proponents of the procedure have been on the defensive over the last few years as more organizations have begun pushing for statewide bans on fracking. But last month advocates of the extraction technique in New York warned that municipalities that attempted to prevent fracking could face costly lawsuits in the future.
Culver City was involved in litigation with PXP before the company agreed to additional air quality monitoring and noise limits last July. PXP also pledged to reduce the number of oil wells from 600 to 500 through 2028.
Weissman said before a citywide ban could take place, a few fundamental legal questions would likely have to be answered if the city council were to consider banning fracking.
“We would be faced with a few different factors as far as if municipalities are able to take on the issue of fracking,” Weissman, an attorney, noted. “Is oil regulation within the exclusive purview of the state of California or can municipalities act in their own?”
Chamber of Commerce President Steven Rose said his organization has not taken an official position on fracking. The chamber’s government affairs committee is slated to review the matter later this month.
Culver City resident Robert Zirgulis has supported oil drilling in Culver City, where there is a city-imposed moratorium. He believes the public would be better served if PXP officials and those who would like to make fracking illegal have a public discussion.
“I think it is a joke to hold so called workshops where only one side is presented,” he asserted. “I would like to see a public debate where the anti-fracking people presented their evidence and PXP could be given a chance to present their evidence. I would like to see a public debate on the fracking issue before the city tries to ban fracking and cost millions more in lawsuits that the taxpayers can't afford.
“We need honest legitimate debate, not hysteria ginned up to scare the public by anti-oil fanatics,” Zirgulis added.
Both Rose and Weissman pointed out that a ban in Culver City would only affect the few wells on the Culver City side of Baldwin Hills and the vast majority of them are on county land.
“The issue that I’m interested in is what will the county do about fracking?” Rose asked.
Alexander said her group has sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and are planning to have present signed letters and petitions to their state representatives, Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell (D- Culver) and state Sen. Curren Price (D- Culver City).