The potential economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing were pitted against the possible risks to local drinking water and irrigation supplies as a long-awaited fracking ban went before the Butte County Board of Supervisors yesterday. North State Public Radio’s Marc Albert was there.
In the end, no action was taken on the proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing which had been hotly debated for over a year. However, some additional restrictions may appear later this year.
Following five hours of testimony and impassioned pleas before the Butte County Board of Supervisors today, the proposed ordinance died on the floor for lack of a second. The proposal, written by County Counsel Bruce Alpert at the board’s behest, sought mainly to protect underground drinking and irrigation water — considered paramount in an agricultural region — from the possibility of contamination from fracking, or fracking waste.
In the process, water or steam and a mix of sand and chemicals are forced deep underground to break loose trapped oil and gas. For every gallon of oil produced through the process in California, about a dozen gallons of water are used — water that becomes contaminated and can never be re-used.
Oil and gas extraction isn’t a big business in the county. Steve Bohlen, Oil and Gas Supervisor for the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — a state regulatory body — told the board that only 32 non-abandoned wells remain, while ten times that number are across the Sacramento River in Glenn County. While companies weren’t required to apply for a fracking permit until last January, Bohlen said no permit applications have been received from either Butte or Glenn County since then.
Unlike North Dakota, Pennsylvania or other regions where fracking has remade the local economy, Bohlen said the Sacramento Valley’s unique geology leaves gas trapped in small and isolated pockets —not huge reservoirs waiting to be tapped. Layers of hard volcanic rock also make drilling more expensive here.
Supporters of the ban argued that the potential risks outweighed the possible benefits. Opponents meanwhile insisted that not enough evidence had conclusively linked fracking to water pollution, or for that matter increased seismic activity.
According to information presented by county officials, just 14 people are employed extracting oil and gas in the county, an amount dwarfed to insignificance by farming. But the issue, which elicited interest from an oil industry concerned about potential legal precedent, also mobilized local environmental campaigners. Supervisor Steve Lambert said he was not interested in media attention or in drawing the county into the national debate.
Lambert : “If they were going to start coming and fracking a lot, then I’d be a different person, to be honest with you. I mean I’d have to really, I’d really think differently about that because then it’s a true situation. But right now, it seems more symbolic.”
Nevertheless, the issue isn’t dead. The board directed county officials to fast-track drafting a new ordinance banning the storage, dumping or injection of fracking waste, and to start the process of writing an ordinance that wouldn’t ban fracking, but would require drillers to attain a conditional use permit.
For North State Public Radio News, I’m Marc Albert in Chico.