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Patt Morrison Asks

Fracking expert Mark Zoback: We need good science, good engineering, good regulations and good enforcement

The Stanford geophysicist and expert on hydraulic fracturing sees the problems and the potential for California.

April 22, 2014|Patt Morrison

"Fracking" — now there's a word that just begs for a bumper sticker. Short for "hydraulic fracturing" — the process of breaking open rock with high-pressure liquids to get at otherwise untappable oil and natural gas — fracking conjures up a welcome energy boom for some, ecological disaster for others. Mark Zoback — Stanford geophysicist since 1984, member of the National Academy of Engineering's Deepwater Horizon investigation committee, personal "decarbonizer," fracking expert — sees the problems and the potential for California. Zoback's bumper sticker might read something like this: "Fracking — Do it, but do it right."

Fracking California's Monterey Shale, in the San Joaquin Valley, is looking like a second Gold Rush.

It's early days. There's probably a lot of oil that could be extracted, but operating in California is complicated by the regulatory environment, by the geology, by public acceptance, by population density in some places. California is a varied landscape. We need a regulatory system that's adaptable to those conditions, and an industry that recognizes that while it's perfectly safe, reasonable and straightforward to operate in some regions, it might be difficult in others.

Should regulations be federal or state?

Both state and federal regulations come to bear. The EPA governs wastewater injection wells [used after fracking to dispose of contaminated water], air quality and other aspects of oil and gas development. On federal land, the Bureau of Land Management controls drilling. But states know local conditions best and are best prepared to adapt. How could one-size-fits-all federal regulations even work for a state like California? The problem is that some states are not doing a very good job. The real challenge is to bring all the states up to high standards and do the best we can to allow development while protecting the public, the environment and so on.

Do we know enough about fracking to draw up good regulations in the first place?

Absolutely. More than 100,000 horizontal and multi-stage "fractured" wells have been drilled in the U.S. and Canada. We know exactly what to do. It's just a matter of making sure industry follows best practices, that we have good regulations in place, and those regulations are enforced.

That's optimistic. Legislatures pass regulations and then may not have money to enforce them, or may deliberately not appropriate money to enforce them.

These things do happen, but the oil and gas industry is a large-scale industrial process, [like] food preparation, aviation, transportation, chemical plants. We live in a highly technological and complex society, and the only way we can survive is through the marriage between technology and regulation.

You're right, regulations are often neglected or abused, and that neglect manifests itself in dramatic accidents [like] Deepwater Horizon. I was on a committee investigating the causes. There were many causes, and not to defend the culpable individuals and companies, but it did reveal a dysfunctional regulatory system. Could a well-functioning system have stopped the accident? That's a hypothetical. But the regulatory system we had couldn't have stopped it, and we know it didn't.

Is any place doing it right?

Pennsylvania has been very conscientious. They're recycling the water so they use less and inject extremely small amounts. Texas last year improved its well-construction standards. Texas just hired a state seismologist.

[States] need a water plan. We need a plan for roads, for pipelines. We need a plan for air pollution. We have to talk about the impact on communities. Look at North Dakota: the economy is booming, the unemployment rate is low — it's great times, but there's also more bar fights, prostitution and strangers in town. There are so many issues at different levels.

California is considering a moratorium on fracking.

I'm usually against such moratoriums. Many people believe that everything we do to impede oil and gas development will be a step toward a decarbonized energy future. I'm very committed to a decarbonized energy future, but you have to recognize our dependence on hydrocarbons.

We need a well-thought-out energy policy that allows a transition to a decarbonized energy future, that respects the need for economic growth not only in this country but around the world. We have to double the size of the energy system [and yet] reduce its impact on the environment; we have to respect national security.

That's very daunting, and moratoria just say this is bad, let's stop doing it. Moratoria tend to make a political statement, but I'm not sure we need political statements. We need good science, good engineering, good regulations and good enforcement.

You're committed to decarbonizing?

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