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    Calif. Drought Becomes Weapon in Fight to Stop Fracking



California's worst drought in 100 years will be helpful in highlighting the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing operations.


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Calif. Drought Becomes Weapon in Fight to Stop Fracking

When California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) announced Friday that the state is undergoing the worst drought in 100 years, some environmental groups saw an opening in their battle against hydraulic fracturing.

Green groups rushed protesters to Brown's San Francisco offices. Carrying signs denouncing the drilling technique, they shouted, "Kick out this drought; ban fracking now!" A similar group appeared yesterday outside California's Capitol in Sacramento for Brown's State of the State address. One sign read, "You sold us out Jerry! Our state is in a drought and you're wasting our water on fracking! Ban it now!"

"It is not a good thing that there's a drought, but it is an excellent opportunity to shine the light on that aspect of fracking, one that I think has been getting too little coverage in the [state] Capitol," said Brian Nowicki, California climate policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The state is "already stretched to breaking point" on water, and "water is a huge part of the fracking problem."

The drought will be helpful in highlighting that aspect of fracking, Nowicki said.

Drought has become the latest weapon being wielded by the Center for Biological Diversity, Credo Mobile, Food & Water Watch California, 350.org and others as they try to convince Brown that he should issue an executive order instituting a moratorium on fracking. Earlier this month, 50 groups signed on to a letter urging Brown to issue such an order (EnergyWire, Jan. 15). It comes as the state finalizes its first-ever regulations on the drilling method.

The groups plan to push the idea that the parched state can't spare the water that oil and gas companies are using in fracking operations.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, the trade group for the oil industry, in a Twitter message said linking the drought declaration to fracking opposition "is nonsense."

"Fracking in CA uses tiny amounts of h2o compared to cities and farms," she said. "In '12, farms used 34 million acre ft of h2o. Fracking used 200. Anti fracking activists know this but continue to misinform their members & public in their misguided campaign to stop prudent energy."

The green group efforts so far haven't swayed the governor.

"The Legislature debated hard on the topic and set in motion a very careful regulatory process with hearings, with scientific analysis and with the collection of data and comments," Brown said when asked about fracking opposition last week in Bakersfield, Calif. "So certainly all of the comments that are going to be made, my administration will look very carefully at. We take this seriously, and we will get volumes of comment and we'll look at them."

Water used in fracking will become more controversial if cities and water agencies start implementing mandatory cutbacks, Nowicki said. Brown so far has called for residents to voluntarily cut water consumption 20 percent.

"It is going to be extremely difficult for those bodies, those decisionmakers to say we need to cut water for communities or for the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta or for farmers," he said, "but we're going to turn a blind eye to the vast amounts of water that are going to be used in the oil and gas, in the fracking operations."

"I don't believe they're going to be able to ignore that," Nowicki said. "This issue will be a part of all of the hearings, decisions, discussions that are going to happen with the drought in general."

Water amounts in debate

Exactly how much water fracking uses isn't clear. Energy in Depth, an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, in a blog post said all the fracking in California combined uses 202 acre-feet of water annually. The number is taken from FracFocus, an industry-backed, privately run website for disclosure of chemicals used in fracking.

Energy in Depth also noted that the total amount of water used for agriculture in California is 34 million acre-feet, roughly one-third of all available surface water supplies. It said 8.4 million acre-feet is used on lawns and other outdoor residential uses in California.

"Activists are peddling the untruth that hydraulic fracturing uses vast amounts of water, when it is repeatedly pointed out that this is simply not the case in California," Dave Quast, California director of Energy in Depth, wrote in the post.

The Center for Biological Diversity believes that number for fracking water consumption in California is unreliable.

The 202-acre-feet figure "seems to be based on the numbers on FracFocus, which, up until a few weeks ago, was a voluntary reporting site," Nowicki said. "All the numbers it has from 2012 were voluntarily reported. Also, the figure cited for average water use per well is lower than what industry is reporting."

One water expert said it wouldn't matter if the water used in fracking were 100 times the 202-acre-feet figure.

"My impression is that the quantity of water used is really very small," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

There are reasons to be concerned about fracking's effect on groundwater, Lund said, but "on the quantity side I'm not too worried about it."

In terms of the argument that the state should block fracking to save water, Lund said that's not the best option.

"You want to spend your effort on the places where you're going to save the most water at the least cost," he said. "You should go after problems that really matter and not go after the de minimis things where it's rhetorically convenient."

Cutting urban lawn watering would make a bigger impact, he said, though that could cause people in the landscaping business to lose their jobs.

There are local issues with water quantity and fracking, said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, which advocates for sustainable water management. He was director of California's Department of Water Resources in former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) administration.

"I have heard anecdotal stories of water for fracking in remote areas affecting local wells, that is, the groundwater pumping for fracking draws down the local water level," Snow said. "As such, fracking is a local issue, and the statewide comparisons not very relevant."

Snow added that "in general during a drought, everyone should conserve" water.

On the Energy in Depth numbers, he said, "The inference seems to be that if you use less than some other notable use ... you don't need to conserve, which is contrary to every drought response strategy. It would seem their response should be that they will reduce their water use by 20 percent as the governor called for."

Water consumption in fracking could grow in years ahead, said Nowicki with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Fracking is threatening to take off," he said in an email. "The oil industry claims there will be a boom, so the 2012 number may not be comparable to future water use.

"We are in a drought," he added. "Every drop is valuable. We need to make smart choices about how to use our water. We shouldn't be gambling with our water supply by greenlighting massive expansion of a water-intensive, water-polluting industry in the middle of a drought."

Anne C. Mulkern, E&E reporter

Republished from EnergyWire with permission. EnergyWire covers the politics and business of unconventional energy. Click here for a free trial

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