Signal Hill Petroleum — an oil company with drilling operations in Los Angeles County — has been quietly obtaining permits in seven Orange County cities to conduct a geophysical survey that could help identify new oil reserves.
Oil extraction is not a new phenomenon in the county. Huntington Beach, for example, has been dotted with oil pumps for decades, some of which are within earshot of City Hall and residential neighborhoods.
But the prospect of a new oil driller seeking fossil fuel deposits in a substantial swath of the central and northwestern portions of the county comes at the height of a national debate over the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Signal Hill officials acknowledge that the company is obtaining permits in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Westminster, Garden Grove, Stanton, Cypress and Buena Park and has also received a permit from the county.
The company officials insist they understand the concerns that arise from drilling and are conducting extensive outreach to the political leadership in these cities as the company seeks permits.
“We're not trying to pull permits. We're trying to build relationships with each of these communities,” said Signal Hill Petroleum Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Dave Slater.
Yet some city council members didn't know about the testing permits until contacted by Voice of OC. And in cities where city councils were given public presentations on the study, the meeting minutes don't indicate that the purpose of the geophysical survey is to look for oil.
“This was an odd one,” said Buena Park City Councilman Steve Berry, who voted against issuing the permit. “We didn't get much background or information.”
Instead, said a source familiar with the situation, the company has engaged in the type of maneuvering familiar to Orange County politics: hiring former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle to help. Pringle's lobbying firm, Curt Pringle & Associates, has worked behind the scenes with city bureaucracies to obtain the permits, according to the source.
Pringle's firm lists Signal Hill Petroleum as a client on its website. Pringle did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“I just don't know anything about what they're even talking about,” said Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim, which has already granted the testing permit. “No one's approached me about it. I heard it in passing.”
Promises of Economic Boom, Worries About Environment
Fracking — a process that releases oil and natural gas by injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock formations containing the fuel — has been praised as the possible trigger for an economic boom that will create millions of jobs nationwide.
But fracking has also come under intense scrutiny for its environmental impacts. Communities in the Northeast close to natural gas fracking operations found their groundwater wells to be contaminated with chemicals and methane. The documentary “Gasland” shows now infamous video of residents turning their kitchen faucets into gas torches by lighting the running water on fire.
There has been debate as to whether the gas in the groundwater was naturally occurring or whether gas drilling caused the contamination, but recent studies have provided evidence that at least some of the problem was caused by the gas wells.
And though most of the fracking controversy has played out in places like New York and Pennsylvania, it is also a major issue in California. The Monterey-Santos shale oil play, a rock formation spanning 1,750 miles under the San Joaquin and Los Angeles basins, is estimated to have one of the largest shale oil deposits in the world — more than 15 billion barrels. Gov. Jerry Brown has said the potential of the state's oil reserves is “extraordinary.”
Signal Hill is looking for oil deposits in an area of Orange County where approximately 70 percent of the drinking water comes from a huge underground aquifer tapped by about 200 wells, according to Roy Herndon, chief hydrogeologist for the Orange County Water District, which manages the aquifer.
Slater said during an interview that the company doesn't engage in fracking in its current operations, using instead a vertical drilling method known as secondary recovery or water flooding. He said that the company doesn't “envision” hydraulic fracturing in Orange County.
Nonetheless, Slater went on to describe the benefits of fracking that the company has discovered in its research of the method and called it a “compelling technology” for “unlocking oil and gas reserves across the country.”
When asked whether oil drilling poses a risk to groundwater, Slater said not when the drilling is “properly designed and executed according to plan.” He also said that there have been “zero issues” related to groundwater contamination from oil operations in California. And he pointed to stringent water monitoring as safeguarding the county's water resource.
“It's amazing how the groundwater is checked, double-checked and triple-checked by more than one agency,” Slater said.
Despite Slater's assurances, the possibility of an oil drilling operation in this part of the county and its proximity to the aquifer has raised eyebrows among some public officials. Water activists and a UC Irvine geologist have said that there should always be concerns about water quality and that contamination remains a possibility, despite what oil companies assert.
“I would say there are significant risks to ground water,” said Andrew Grinberg, fracking program organizer at Clean Water Action California.
The Risk of Fracking Near Groundwater
Residents of Dimock, Pa., know all too well the dangers of fracking.
Residents in 2009 claimed that their drinking water was making them sick after natural gas wells were drilled in their town. State regulators declared that the drilling by Houston-based oil company Cabot Oil & Gas had contaminated the town's aquifer with methane. The company still maintains that its fracking operation did not cause the contamination.
An investigation later conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency didn't find any of the fracking fluids residents had suspected were in their groundwater and declared the water safe to drink, sparking outrage from residents.
Even some activists will acknowledge that if fracking is done correctly, many of its harmful environmental effects can be mitigated. However, they also point to a lack of oversight or even knowledge about the chemical cocktails being injected deep underground.
“The problem is a lot of the fracking is couched in secrecy. … If you don't know what they're putting in, it's hard to know what to look for,” said UC Irvine chemistry Professor A.J. Shaka. “In the nuclear industry we have an NRC, and they regulate it very tightly. We have no GRC, if you see what I mean.”
The biggest risk to groundwater is when during the operation the chemical-laced fracking water comes back up to the surface. If the driller doesn't adequately contain that waste, it can seep back into the groundwater.
Another risk, which experts say is much lower if the groundwater is shallow and the oil and gas are much deeper, is migration of gas to the groundwater from the drilling. According to state regulators, that's what happened in Dimock; natural gas migrated to the water from poorly constructed wells.
Grinberg said he isn't convinced that the risk is so low. He argued that when a driller bores through an aquifer, there is no casing around the well below the aquifer, and there is a potential for natural gas to migrate into the water in both natural gas and oil drilling operations.
“There's a whole litany of things that can go wrong,” Grinberg said.
California Is New Frontier for Fracking
And although industry leaders argue that there haven't been any incidents in California, Grinberg agrees with Shaka that it's impossible to know when there is no disclosure of the chemicals used. And even in a low-risk situation, contamination of an aquifer would be devastating, Grinberg says.
“You can't fix it very easily,” Grinberg said. “You can't take that pollution once its out, its a really expensive, long-term or even impossible job. That's why the stakes are so high.”
Slater said his company isn't one of the bad actors responsible for groundwater contamination in other places. And he said the wells Signal Hill Petroleum uses are constructed in steel casings well over a mile beneath the surface.
Any waste that comes back up during the drilling process is properly stored, Slater said. “[In] our operations in Los Angeles County, nothing touches the ground,” he said.
Meanwhile, California is at a crucial moment in the fracking debate. The Assembly has been considering bills to place a moratorium on the drilling method until more is known about its environmental impacts.
Cities across California are also considering fracking bans. In April, small Mora County in New Mexico became the first county in the nation to ban the method.
And if recent history is an indication, Orange County residents may very well resist any sort of oil drilling.
In the early 1990s, Chevron attempted to start a drilling operation in Garden Grove. After a massive public outcry and a voter initiative that severely restricted where the drilling could occur, the company pulled out.
Nonetheless, Slater hopes that his company can pitch oil drilling as a safe operation that comes with a package of economic benefits, including taxes and fees. His company has been a good neighbor in Los Angeles County, Slater said.
“What we do has a real economic impact, and when we do it community-friendly and environmentally friendly, it's a win-win,” Slater said.