Fracking Impacts California Water

Kacey Bills, MPP 2014

#Whatthefrack? This catchy hash tag is circulating social media sites in support of Californians Against Fracking, a coalition of environmental organizations across California. The campaign seeks to have Governor Brown ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as an oil and gas extraction method by November 2014.[1] Currently, fracking is an accepted drilling method in California if oil and gas companies comply with state regulation. The coalition of environmental organizations believes that allowing any hydraulic fracturing puts California at risk for serious health and environmental impacts.

Fracking is a relatively new technique that extracts oil and gas out of shale formations, which are sedimentary rock formations deep underground. [2] The act of fracking forces millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure underground to break apart shale rock. At around 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface, fissures are created in the shale by plastic balls, leaving cracks for the fluid to fill up and extract the oil or gas. The oil or gas goes into a storage tank, and the recovered water is mostly injected into disposal wells deep in the ground.[3]

One major threat that fracking poses is the depletion and contamination of California’s water supply. California is experiencing a severe drought, and fracking requires copious amounts of water, which is then contaminated and unusable. The organization Clean Water Action estimates that 5 million gallons of water is used to frack a single well, which is comparable to supplying water for 100 households for an entire year.[4]

Fracking has been occurring in at least six California counties for the past 60 years.[5] The majority of California’s wells produce oil rather than natural gas. The Monterey Shale, which spans Kern County and the Central Coast, is one of the largest oil shale sites up for exploitation in the country, with an estimated 15 billion barrels of available oil. That is roughly 2/3 of total shale oil reserves in the lower 48 states.[6] Governor Brown signed SB 4 last September, which requires companies that wish to engage in hydraulic fracturing to receive a permit, disclose the chemicals used, and monitor groundwater at the site.[7] Environmental groups were disappointed that the Governor did not sign an all-out ban on the practice.

Studies conducted on water supplies near fracking sites show a strong indication that fracking contaminates drinking water. A study of 68 drinking water wells in New York and Pennsylvania revealed that methane contamination and fracking are strongly correlated.[8] The study also found evidence that indicated that gas might be seeping through fissures into water wells. When methane begins to enter the water supply, it can lead to explosions, such as those experienced in Pennsylvania.[9] For example, in Dimock, PA. some water wells exploded or the water could be lit on fire. Although methane is not considered to be harmful to drink, its presence in water supplies poses a risk of asphyxiation and explosion to people near methane contaminated water wells.

The non-profit organization Ceres released a report on the water usage of fracking. The report is based on data provided from oil and gas companies, and details the availability of water in areas where fracking occurs. It found that 98% of wells being fracked in California are under high or extreme water stress. The majority of fracked wells are located in California’s Central Valley, and specifically Kern County.[10] This area is already lacking equal access to clean and safe drinking water.[11] Using high volumes of water for fracking ignores the state’s responsibility to provide safe water for all Californians.[12]

Fracking advocates have cited the positive economic impacts associated with domestic oil drilling. Fracking brings jobs and boosts the economy in communities surrounding fracking sites. This boost has some complex social and economic consequences, such as soaring housing costs and the displacement of residents. Regardless of real or perceived economic benefits, fracking seriously threatens environmental quality. Air pollution, water contamination, and seismic activity should be enough of a reason to ban fracking in California, regardless of any possible economic gain.

If you live in California and are able to meet with representatives from environmental organizations like Environment California, take a minute to talk to them about the environmental impacts of fracking. If you are persuaded, signing the petition to ban fracking and sending a letter or email to Governor Brown on the topic is a great way to contribute to the cause. Remember that representative democracy is only representative of those who speak up. If we do not speak up against fracking, it is very likely that special interests with deep pockets will be the only voices that our lawmakers hear.

[1] #WhatTheFrack | Americans Against Fracking. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2014, from
[2] What Is Hydraulic Fracturing? (n.d.). ProPublica. Retrieved May 11, 2014, from
[3] What Is Fracking? (2013). Retrieved from

[4] Grinberg, A. (n.d.). Clean Water Action’s Position on Hydraulic Fracturing (p. 5). Clean Water Action. Retrieved from

[5] Sharp, R., & Allayaud, B. (2012). Calironia Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking. Environmental Working Group.

[6] Carlton, J. (2013, September 22). Oil Firms Seek to Unlock Big California Field. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

[7] Bill Text – SB-4 Oil and gas: well stimulation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2014, from

[8] Osborn, S. G., Vengosh, A., Warner, N. R., & Jackson, R. B. (2011). Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(20), 8172–8176. doi:10.1073/pnas.1100682108

[9] ProPublica, A. L., 9, M., 2011, & P.m, 2. (n.d.). Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking. ProPublica. Retrieved May 11, 2014, from

[10] Freyman, M. (2014). Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers. Ceres. Retrieved from

[11] Balazs, C., Morello-Frosch, R., Hubbard, A., & Ray, I. (2011). Social Disparities In Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water In California’s San Joaquin Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(9), 1272-1278.

[12] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (2011, August) Retrieved From

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