Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr hosted a panel discussion Thursday night at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in light of congressional legislation that would require energy companies to disclose the chemicals used in their hydraulic fracturing operations.

Hydraulic fracturing is used to increase the effectiveness of oil and gas wells by injecting fluid at high pressures. The fluid is mostly water with a small percentage of chemicals that differ from company to company.

The method has caused concerns over groundwater and surface water contamination and general public health, especially since oil and gas companies are not required to disclose which chemicals they are injecting into the ground.

The bill, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (or FRAC Act), would also repeal fracking’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act, through what Capps called the “Halliburton loophole.”

Santa Barbara County residents and elected officials have been concerned about hydraulic fracturing since an unpermitted drilling operation was discovered in Los Alamos. Venoco Inc. didn’t think a permit was required, but county officials require Oil Drilling and Production Plan permits, which include going through an environmental review process and getting Planning Commission approval, according to Doug Anthony, deputy director of the county’s energy division.

For a small community such as Los Alamos, the aquifer is the one and only source of public water, so contamination would have disastrous consequences.

Bob Field, president of the Santa Ynez Rancho Estates Mutual Water Company, put the dilemma in perspective. Without knowing what the chemicals are, he said, water companies can’t know whether they are testing for them.

“If a chemical is not lawful to be in groundwater, then why is it lawful to inject it into the ground?” he said.

The California Department of Conservation has the authority to regulate fracking, but has neither the methods nor funding in place to do it, said Marni Weber, assistant director of the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources.

It’s considered a “well stimulus,” and without the requirement to report it, the state doesn’t know how much of it is happening, she said. There is a voluntary registration site, where several companies have registered chemicals used in specific wells, but there is no information regarding Santa Barbara County operations.

Weber said the geographical uniqueness of each state should be considered with regulation and that research should be done to see if fracking has any impact on seismic activity. Local regulations for drilling and regulation is a good way to do that, she added.

Environmental Defense Center attorney Brian Segee said the uncertain types of toxic chemicals put in the ground are concerning, as is the large amount of fresh water used in the operations. In Venoco’s wells near Los Alamos, he said, 100,000 gallons were used for each injection of fluid.

Waste transport, the potential for spills, and the impacts on surrounding wildlife and air quality are other concerns that can’t be addressed while the existing laws have so many loopholes, Segee said.

Energy industry representative Tupper Hull said existing regulations are “robust” and that hydraulic fracturing operations are a “breathtaking improvement” toward an energy-independent future for the United States. Hull, the strategic communications vice president for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the method has been used since the 1940s, mostly as a method to enhance recovery of crude oil, and hasn’t been found harmful to the environment.

The industry supports disclosing chemicals used as long as trade secrets are protected, as specific “recipes” can give companies an advantage over others, Hull said. There was support by oil and gas companies for Assembly Bill 591, now stalled in committees, that would require the disclosure of a well’s history and chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing.

To that, Field said the public needs to know what to test for in water resources, not the chemical recipe.

Los Alamos resident Chris Wrather, who lives on and owns a thoroughbred horse farm, said locals are uneasy with the technology. He said regulation is essential to avoid the public taking all the risk while companies make profits.

If the aquifer was contaminated, “it would be game over,” he said. “Our business would be worthless, our land would be worthless and we would have to move.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Energy & Commerce Committee Hydraulic Fracturing Report

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.