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CALIFORNIA

Baldwin Hills fracking study is questioned

An environmental impact report only deepens tensions between community and an oil company.

October 15, 2012|Ruben Vives
  • Some homes in the Windsor Hills neighborhood have sweeping views of the Inglewood Oil Field operated by Plains Exploration & Production Co. Residents suspect damage on their properties is caused by hydraulic fracturing at the field. A recent study paid for by the oil company said there were no environmental or health problems caused by the fracking. The community is suspicious of the report's findings.
Some homes in the Windsor Hills neighborhood have sweeping views of the… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

The environmental impact report on hydraulic fracturing at the Inglewood Oil Field was supposed to address key concerns raised by residents of the Baldwin Hills area.

Instead, the report has deepened tensions between the oil field's owner, Plains Exploration & Production Co., and the community after the findings were released last week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 16, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Fracking study: An article in the Oct. 15 LATExtra on a study assessing the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, at the Inglewood Oil Field referred to Food Water & Watch as one of the nonprofit groups that is questioning the findings. The correct name of the group is Food & Water Watch.

The yearlong study -- conducted by an environmental consulting firm and paid for by the owner and operator of the oil field -- concluded that the controversial extraction method used at two wells did not affect the environment or health of those living nearby.

But critics, after days of reviewing the study, say it lacks independent scientific scrutiny and that at least one of the peer reviewers has close ties to the energy industry. Moreover, the critics say, the report's conclusion is based on near-term impacts and fails to address fears of long-term damage -- such as the potential risk of chemical additives leaching into groundwater. The report was peer reviewed by two firms selected by the oil company and Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the communities around the field, advised caution.

"The point is, we have more than one peer reviewer here," Ridley-Thomas said. "It's hardly done; it is up for further examination, further discussion and this is an important step in the process, but hardly a conclusive one."

Funding of the landmark study and selection of the reviewers was part of a settlement with environmental and community groups that had sued Plains Exploration. Officials from the company are scheduled to discuss the study at a community meeting on Monday.

Dave Quast of Energy in Depth, an advocacy group funded by the energy industry, hopes the report will be useful to other gas and oil companies.

"The study reconfirms what scientists have been saying all along; that it's a safe and proven technology that's been used for more than 60 years," he said.

Critics, though, say the report is tainted because one of the reviewers, John Martin of JPMartin Energy Strategy, is a well-known consultant for the oil and gas industry and is already embroiled in a controversy involving another study on hydraulic fracturing. As director of the State University of New York at Buffalo's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, Martin co-wrote a study this spring that said fracking was becoming safe in Pennsylvania due to state oversight and better industry practices.

Environmental watchdogs were quick to question the study's data and point to the authors' ties to the industry. The university's board of trustees asked that the matter be looked at, but administrators found no violation of its ethics or conflict of interest policies. Food Water & Watch, a nonprofit environmental group, says that controversy and the Inglewood study's narrow scope raises more questions about the validity of the Plains Exploration report.

"The job of the reviewer is to look at what's been written and offer suggestions where it is inefficient or where it can be better, not a process to debate the issue," Martin told The Times last week.

Fracking is a technique involving the pressurized injection of water, sand and chemical additives into a wellbore that fractures the rock formations deep below to release trapped oil and gas. But the method has come under fire amid allegations that it contaminates water supplies and increases seismic activity.

Dozens of homeowners who live near the Inglewood Oil Field have seen giant cracks form on their property. The area is on the Newport-Inglewood fault.

All of this comes as new regulations for fracking are being drafted by the California Department of Conservation, which oversees the drilling, maintenance, and plugging of oil, natural gas and geothermal wells. Jason Marshall, chief deputy director, confirmed the department is reviewing the Inglewood report: "As we draft regulations ... we surely will be looking to any information or studies that identify areas of concern, whether those studies focus on individual wells or fields."

That worries Dr. Tom Williams, a retired geologist and engineer, who for 40 years has assessed hundreds of such reports for various companies and government agencies. He fears the study will lead to expanded use of fracking before long-term damage is assessed and will set a bad precedent in California, the fourth-largest oil-producing state. "Hermosa Beach is going through the electoral process to stop oil drilling, and the new oil field operator will probably use the Inglewood Oil Field report as a means of trying to convince voters not to stop oil development," he said.

Jeff Cohn, a resident and founder of Stop Oil Drilling In Hermosa Beach, agrees. "I'm terrified of the domino effect. The repercussions it will have across the Southland," he said.

Environmental and community groups say the Inglewood report is based on the effects of a single fracking stage of two vertical wells, when the company plans to frack horizontally in many stages. Effects those stages might have on the Newport-Inglewood fault need to be taken into account, they say.

But the California Independent Petroleum Assn. defends the method and argues that it has created thousands of jobs, billions in tax revenues and has led to more energy security for the country. Armed with the Plains Exploration study, proponents say they hope fracking will play a key role in California's Monterey and Santos shale formations.

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ruben.vives@latimes.com

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