Business / Economy

Anti-fracking advocates face questions concerning oil well maintenance

Citadel Exploration CEO breaks silence in statement to BenitoLink, while government officials and local activists continue fight against oil companies.

Government officials teamed with local activists Jan. 17, during a panel on regional efforts against hydraulic fracturing — just one of many treatments routinely leveraged by oil companies.

Days after the release of the most authoritative assessment of well stimulation in California, whose legislature requires such findings under Senate Bill 4, San Benito Rising and Californians Against Fracking hosted talks Saturday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in San Juan Bautista, where they and county-level government officials addressed some of the ways communities work to ban fracking, among a few of the other methods of well stimulation. Speakers included John Leopold, a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors since January 2009, and Katja Irvin, a land use expert and an employee of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Representatives of Monterey and San Benito counties also led the discussion.

Panelists who spoke on behalf of San Benito Rising — the group behind Measure J, an initiative which voters in San Benito County overwhelmingly approved last November to ban some of the forms of well stimulation, including fracking — and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors attempted to address queries that sought insight on concerns associated with well maintenance, such as the use of acid in repairs of damage done by drilling, based on a public report Jan. 14 by the California Council on Science and Technology.

The state-commissioned assessment by the CCST, a not-for-profit corporation established by the California Legislature in 1988, provides what it calls "the factual basis" of modern well stimulation, along with "the potential impacts" of such technologies on the qualities of several substances including air and water.

Andy Hsia-Coron, a resident of San Benito County and co-founder of San Benito Rising, said on the panel, whose audience reportedly included more than 100 people, that he wasn’t familiar with the issues of well maintenance covered by the CCST, which last week released the first of three volumes of its independent scientific study required under SB 4.

In response to one question from the audience concerning risks of well maintenance, Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold said that his community totally outlawed oil extraction technology.

“We’ve developed a strategy in Santa Cruz that a lot of local counties have picked up,” said Leopold during the discussion. “We put a citizens’ initiative on the ballot to ban onshore oil facilities for anybody who’s doing offshore oil development. Twenty-five years later, we started seeing actions that led us to believe that we were going to start seeing fracking.”

Because of a previously balloted initiative in Santa Cruz County, according to Leopold, the government there in consultation with its attorney determined that they could change the initiative to include fracking as a part of a county-wide ban of onshore oil facilities.

“In May 2014, Santa Cruz County became the first in the state to completely ban oil extraction technology, particularly fracking,” said Leopold, who later noted that oil production in his county ended roughly 50 years ago.

In San Benito County, according to Hsia-Coron, oil production remains relevant. Some members of the community here have pushed back against the oil industry by asking county supervisors to initiate ordinances to stop some of the forms of oil extraction and well stimulation, including fracking and matrix acidization.

In a telephone interview Sunday with BenitoLink, Hsia-Coron cited a deliberation last year by the California Department of Conservation, which reiterated calls for a distinction between the uses of acid in well stimulation and maintenance, including restoration of permeability. Well operators routinely use acid to repair damage as a result of drilling, according to the CDC’s report last year.

Measure J doesn't address reportedly routine uses of acid by well operators, according to Hsia-Coron. Rather, it only prohibits its use as part of oil extraction.

“There was a lot of talk in our county about how this initiative would somehow prohibit a routine form of well maintenance,” said Hsia-Coron in the post-panel interview with BenitoLink. “Both our attorneys’ and our position is that acid maintenance is not in any way the same thing as enhanced methods using acid for extracting oil. Our initiative does not ban routine maintenance.”

In the state-commissioned study released Jan. 14, the CCST said that the distinction remains fraught with difficulty: “As a technical matter, it is hard to distinguish between matrix acidizing to increase permeability and acidizing to restore permeability.”

“In the technical literature, the term ‘well stimulation’ can also refer to technologies used to repair damage in and near the well induced by well drilling and hydrocarbon production,” reported the CCST.

Both of the documents commissioned by the state also warned of limited availability of data regarding well operators’ uses of acid, and noted the regulatory exclusion of routine uses of such chemicals, such as hydrofluoric and hydrochloric formulas, during well maintenance.

David Braun, a co-founder and an organizer of Americans Against Fracking, referred a BenitoLink request for a comment on reportedly widespread use of acid in routine maintenance of oil wells to another spokesperson.

Despite what he termed significant risks of oil extraction and production, as well as well stimulation or maintenance, Hsia-Coron said that he thinks there is no need for San Benito County to follow the same path of Santa Cruz County, where regulators and residents completely eliminated the stimulation and maintenance of oil wells, as well as the extraction of oil.

"A complete ban of oil extraction in San Benito County doesn’t seem necessary,” said Hsia-Coron.

The United States, according to a blog post Jan. 15 by Small Business Administration Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, is now the world's No. 1 producer of oil and gas, both of which continue strengthening the national economy, including its workforce.

Citadel Exploration Inc., a California oil producer, last November tentatively filed a $1.2 billion claim against San Benito County for what the company called the “diminished value” of Project Indian, an operation in the Bitterwater area approved before Measure J by county supervisors.

Citadel CEO Armen Nahabedian told BenitoLink Monday that he would not comment on Citadel's legal strategy.

"The County of San Benito has created huge liability for itself by taking a position against the oil and gas industry and property owners living there," said Nahabedian in an emailed statement to BenitoLink.

"It appears that the conflict will be resolved in a court of law and, accordingly, I will not be making comments to the press until there is finality on the issues at hand."

Jason McCormick

Jason McCormick is a journalist taking a break from news and now running mcormc corporation, a data driven digital marketing agency in Redding, Calif.