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Fracking the forest 

A national debate over plans to federally regulate a controversial mineral extraction practice hit home with the recent release of a report by a local environmental watchdog group. Los Padres ForestWatch published a summary of a public records search it conducted that revealed numerous instances of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, directly adjacent to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary within the Los Padres National Forest.

Fracking involves the pumping of chemically treated water and sand deep into the crust to loosen marketable mineral deposits. The report shows that oilfield operators employed fracking underneath or near the Los Padres 351 times since the 1960s, including several treatments this summer by Texas-based Seneca Resources Group. Operators have been actively drilling in the Sespe Oil Field for more than a century, and fracking there for at least half of that.

“Every single well in Sespe has been fracked at least once,” explained Gabe Garcia, assistant field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Bakersfield office.

The agency oversees drilling leases issued to the private developers of federal oil and gas deposits, regardless of whether the surface above belongs to BLM or some other land management agency.

Though not news to BLM field staff or the Sespe oil operators, the existence of sustained fracking so close to the boundaries of the forest took many by surprise. Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch argued that this is another reason why the federal government should require all oil operators fracking in federal mineral deposits to disclose the treatment chemicals used and the source of the water.

“The public deserves to know what types of chemicals are being pumped into our groundwater,” he wrote in a statement accompanying the report.

Seneca Resources Group voluntarily registered its 2012 fracks in the Sespe Oil Field on the Internet database FracFocus.org. Spokesman Rob Boulware explained that the operator has done more to shed daylight on its activities than the law requires: “Seneca has responsibly developed California natural resources for 25 years,” he said. “We will continue to operate as transparently as possible.”

Critics of fracking point to studies showing water table contamination in areas fracked for natural gas. Yet the industry counters that the oilfield fracking common to California poses considerably less of a risk. Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency to release a draft report on its comprehensive fracking study by the end of the year.

The current regulatory scheme leaves the monitoring of fracking operations to the states, whose rules generally require little in the way of public disclosure. BLM published draft regulations earlier this year that would mandate disclosure of both the chemicals and water source, as well as a plan for dealing with the wastewater. The agency received more than 100,000 comments on the proposed rules, with the strongest opposition coming from lawmakers in mineral-rich states like Wyoming. 

Seneca Resources declined to take a position on the BLM rulemaking process. Boulware stated it would be premature to comment on draft regulations.

If adopted, the draft rules would provide the first panoramic look into a topic of mainstream discussion largely fueled by speculation. Several procedural statutes enacted by Congress during the 1960s and ’70s require the government to research and evaluate actions that might impact the environment. However, most of the Sespe permits predate these federal laws by several decades.

Garcia of BLM said the agency performed an environmental assessment of two planned wells in the area earlier this year. The agency also consulted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on potential impacts to the California condor, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.

“No jeopardy,” Garcia reported.

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