Part 3: The facts, fiction, and fundamentals of fracking

Environmentalists are concerned about the practice of "fracking," which breaks rocks to release oil. Fracking uses chemicals that frighten some activists, but industry officials and state regulators say there have been no contamination problems in the 60 years fracking has been in use.
The Central Valley may be on the cusp of an unprecedented oil boom, a boom that would bring money and jobs and also an increase in the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking

Fracking has been used in Kern for decades, but only recently got the widespread attention of environmentalists.

Fracking breaks shale rocks to release the oil inside. The process often uses chemicals, and that has some environmental activists upset.

Opponents say fracking is the new "F-word.” It has incited protests across the country, including in Kern County, a movement some feel was created by the 2010 documentary, Gasland. The film claims fracking back east allowed gas to seep into water wells, causing faucets to burst into flame.

The process is not continuous. It's a one time deal.

"When the frack is actually running, it runs two hours a day and we do that for about 14 days," said said Tim Zdarko, a drilling manager for Aera.

During the process operations are controlled and monitored from a "frack van" which holds a crew of engineers who closely monitor the process and simultaneously release a mixture of water, sand, and fracking fluids into the well.

Their aim is to get just the right fluid pressure downhole to create microscopic cracks in what moment before was solid rock. That allows oil to flow.

The cracks can stretch up to 300 feet, with pressures that sometimes allow a well to produce oil with no pumps. Not only does the well push up oil but fracking fluid, containing chemicals.

"Chemicals are added to change the physical characteristics of that fracture fluid," said Tim Kustic, a supervisor for the State Division of Oil and Gas.

The concern is that the fracking fluid could contaminate the water table, a concern Zdarko, the Aera drilling manager, said is unfounded.

"I am totally confident nothing is going to happen," said Zdarko.
He said that's because fracking fluids are released miles below the water table.

"When we're going as deep as we are, which is 2 miles down, the fresh water is at a 1,000 feet. There is absolutely no issues that we are going to have with the fresh water," said Zdarko.

Well casings are made of layers of steel and cement. "You can see there's one two three sets of cement strings that are cemented all the way to the surface that are going to be protecting your fresh water," said Zdarko.

The oil industry says its safety record proves the system works. The state regulator, the Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources or DOGGR, can cite no cases of contaminated water. “Although hydraulic fracturing stimulation has occurred in the state for over 50 years there hasn't been significant problems at all from it," said Kustic, from the state Division of Oil and Gas. .

But what about the gas in the water wells in Pennsylvania? Why did it light on fire? Experts are at odds. According to the USGS, "naturally-occurring methane can be found in drinking water wells in areas not near fracked wells." But a Duke University asserts that the gas in this water, is caused by fracking.

Yet here industry swears by the practice and the state regulator asserts its safety.

"I have no concerns about it as a geoscientist and an engineer," said Miner.

"All wells in the state are tightly regulated," said Kustic.

But the public remains skeptical, a skepticism that companies hope disappears with each safe well drilled and fracked in the valley.

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