By now, many people have heard about the booming Bakken Shale in North Dakota where there is a mad rush for oil, enabled by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a practice that pumps millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground to break rock and release hydrocarbons.
The Bakken has garnered big media attention and so too has Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale and the gas-rich Marcellus Shale in the Northeast. But more than these big shale plays are on the table. Fracking is happening in 17 states and more than 80,000 wells have been drilled or permitted in the last nine years -- some of these in surprising (and alarming) places.
From scenic coastal waters to vital agricultural land, here are five places where fracking could soon be taking off.
1. California's Vital Farmlands. Kern County in California’s Central Valley is part of the heart of the state’s $43 billion a year agriculture industry and it has made headlines frequently as ground zero for California’s crippling drought. Dairy is big in Kern and farmers (mostly large agribusiness) also grow almonds, pistachios, grapes, cotton, carrots, onions, citrus and much more.
Diminished water supplies and overdrawn aquifers have farmers offering big bucks for water this year. But they may have to outbid another heavy weight -- the oil industry. Kern County is the top oil-producing county in the state (although production tumbled nearly 50 percent between 1985 and 2011) and its Holy Grail is the Monterey Shale, a deep underground rock formation that was estimated to hold 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil – twice as much as North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.
Trying to get at more oil has meant more drilling and not just in Kern’s historical oilfields. In small agricultural towns in the county like Shafter and Wasco, wells are being drilled and now fracked in almond and pistachio orchards. It’s hard to tell exactly how many wells have been fracked – the state hasn’t required regulation of fracking, although that's in the works.
Maps like this one from FracTracker show clusters of fracked wells along the oilfields that line Highway 33 (also known as the Petroleum Highway) and around Shafter and Wasco. The state's Department of Conservation shows notices to hydraulically fracture 100 wells in Kern in the span of a month this spring.
Is Kern poised to take off like the Bakken? It’s unclear. Estimates of its vast reserves in the Monterey were recently reduced – drastically. The amount of oil now deemed economically recoverable was cut 96 percent, to 600 million barrels, although that hasn’t yet deterred industryfrom trying anyway.
2. Pacific Coast Waters. A six-month investigation by Truthout revealed last July that hydraulic fracking had occurred off the coast of California in the Santa Barbara Channel and no special permits or environmental review were required. Mike Ludwig wrote:
Truthout reported that an oil company called Venoco had quietly used fracking technology to stimulate oil production in an old well off the coast of Santa Barbara in early 2010. A Freedom of Information Act request recently filed by Truthouthas confirmed the Venoco operation and revealed that another firm had since received permission for fracking in the Santa Barbara channel, which is home to the Channel Islands marine reserve.
This year, federal regulators approved an application by the Ventura-based company DCOR LLC to use fracking technology known as "frack pack" in a sandstone well 1,500 feet from a seismic fault in the outer continental shelf off the California coast, according to the documents released by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the federal agency that permits offshore drilling.
Industry contends the offshore fracking is a much smaller operation (that uses less water, sand and chemicals) than what is previously done onshore but environmental groups are still concerned about pollution.
KCET reported in February that, “about half of the state's offshore rigs pump at least some of their wastewater right into the Santa Barbara Channel” and “according to the Center for Biological Diversity, oil rig operators have federal permits to dump more than nine billion gallons of fracking wastewater into California's ocean waters each year.”
While the Santa Barbara Channel is home to oilfields, it’s also renowned for its scenic beauty, prime beaches, ecological diversity, and the Channel Islands National Park. This map shows the proximity of oil activity and wildlife in the channel.
3. Florida's Tropics. Is fracking happening in the Everglades? That depends on who you ask. According to the Texas oil company Dan A. Hughes Co., the answer is no. But not everyone agrees with that. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Texas company, “has been caught using fracking-like blasting methods to drill for oil near the Everglades, raising alarms from state officials and inflaming a long-simmering controversy over energy exploration in the midst of a cherished ecosystem.”
The company was using an "enhanced extraction procedure" which involves pumping acid (instead of a mixture of other toxic chemicals) underground with water and sand to dissolve rock. According to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection the company apparently performed the technique without a permit and in violation of a cease-and-desist order.
The practice is known as acidizing, acid fracking or acid well stimulation. It’s new to Florida but it’s become common practice (although the subject of deep concern) in other states, like California.
Environmental groups in the area are concerned it will open a Pandora’s Box. Marjorie Holt, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Central Florida Group, told the Orlando Sentinel that, "It opens the door to fracking for oil," and “it could be an incentive for other companies to start exploration in Florida."
4. The Great Lakes. Fracking is already happening in Michigan and environmental groups are worried that it may expand and threaten their prized freshwater resources.
“The oil and gas industry has leased 84,000 acres of national forest along the Great Lakes—putting our lakes and the waterways that flow into them in harm’s way,” reports Environment Michigan. “Fracking poses a huge risk of water contamination and depletion to the Great Lakes: 95% of our waterways are connected, so fracking anywhere in Michigan can threaten the Great Lakes … In Kalkaska County, a single fracking site contaminated 42 million gallons of water.”
Last year concern over water use by the oil and gas industry grew, as EcoWatch reported:
"Concerns about the impact to local groundwater by massive water use—on a scale never before seen in Michigan fracking operations—are coming to a head, as the plan for Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. to use 8.4 million gallons of water to fracture a single well has been stymied by a lack of water on site.
Instead, the company is trucking water—nearly 1 million gallons of it in just one week—from the City of Kalkaska’s water system to meet its needs. This one fracking operation today is using more water than Kalkaska is using for all its needs over the same time period."
5. Next to Our National Parks. Fracking can’t take place inside our National Parks, but oil and gas development is getting closer and closer, which is bad news for wildlife that migrate across park boundaries, and for park visitors that hope for clean air and beautiful vistas.
No where is this more apparent than Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, which is enveloped by oil drilling, with gas flares at well sites visible from the park and nearby roads clogged with big trucks and industry-related traffic.
The National Parks Conservation Association reported that, “the impacts from the estimated 45,000 wells due at ‘full build-out’ could seriously impair the park’s mandate to protect its undeveloped lands and wildlife, perhaps most noticeably by severing connections between the park and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands, impeding migration routes and fragmenting habitat for pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, elk, and sharp-tailed grouse.”
But the organization reports, Theodore Roosevelt is not the only National Park at risk, Grand Tetons National Park and Glacier National Park both have fracking encroaching near park borders. And public lands, such as state and national forests, across the country - from Pennsylvania to California - are already pocked by fracked wells.