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Forget Fracking: California Should Be Worried About Acid Jobs

What’s an acid job, you ask? Nothing serious, as long as you don’t mind acid in your drinking water.

California’s tortured relationship with oil goes back many years; the first Earth Day in 1970 was triggered by a giant 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the state is moving at a glacial pace to decide the rules for hydraulic fracturing (AKA fracking) in the Monterey oil formation—the largest oil shale reserve in the U.S., with approximately 15 billion barrels of oil just waiting to be tapped.

The battle over fracking in the state—which has dealt with unregulated fracking for the past 50 years)—is heating up. Just last month, state lawmakers defeated a moratorium on the practice. But only 39% of state residents support increased fracking, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Here’s the problem: when it comes to the Monterey oil formation, fracking might not be the biggest danger. Acid jobs could be far worse.

From Reuters:

It is an old well completion method that involves pumping chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid into wells to melt rocks and other impediments to oil flow, and companies are not required to report when they do it.

"These are super-hazardous, poisonous chemicals and we have no idea what they are doing out there with it - how deep it is going, the volumes - nothing," said Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group. "Why shouldn’t our state agency be regulating it as we hope they’ll be regulating hydraulic fracturing?"

"Venoco, one of the leading [drilling] companies, has said that most jobs are not going to be frack jobs. While regulators, legislators, and my environmental colleagues in the public are looking one way, where the action is is in a different way," says Steve Shimek, the founder of Monterey Coastkeeper. I think we need to broaden the discussion and talk about enhanced recovery techniques for oil."

Regulators are, of course, unconcerned about the potential ramifications of acid jobs. Back to Reuters:

Fracking regulation will take up to 16 months to write, said State Oil and Gas Supervisor Tim Kustic. Rules on acid jobs could take even longer.

There is little chance of acid migrating from a well site if the well meets strict state construction standards, and there have been no reports of damage caused, even if there is a risk from how chemicals are handled above ground, Kustic said.

Shimek still worries that both frack jobs and acid jobs could cause fracking fluid or oil to leak into groundwater. Kassie Siegel, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Reuters that she’s concerned about how injecting hydrofluoric acid into the ground could change the local geology. The Monterey shale also runs below the San Joaquin Basin in the state’s Central Valley—where much of the country’s produce is grown. A couple nasty accidents and farmers won’t be too happy.

In the end, nobody is going to keep determined drillers from getting to their oil. We just need to hope that the regulations are up to par.