SACRAMENTO — A panel of top state regulators told lawmakers on Wednesday that they have moved quickly to implement California’s first-ever regulations governing hydraulic fracturing, but well operators are having difficulties complying with the new requirements.
Permanent regulations required by a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall are now being promulgated and will not take effect until next year.
But the Department of Conservation has imposed emergency regulations this year that establish basic reporting requirements and also require well operators to either monitor effects on groundwater or certify that there is no protected groundwater in the vicinity of their wells.
Thomas Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, told senators at a joint committee hearing that, to date, well operators have not sufficiently complied.
Eight requests covering 141 wells have been submitted to the Water Board, and all have claimed an exemption for the monitoring requirement. Based on the information provided, the board has not been able to affirm a single such claim.
“My staff has been unable, with the information submitted, to definitely say the conditions that would require monitoring don’t exist,” Howard said.
Of the well-certification notices submitted so far, three have come from Ventura County and the remainder from Kern County.
The certifications submitted thus far consist of “more assertions than evidence,” he said. “There has got to be sufficient evidence for us to make a finding.”
He said the requests have not been rejected, but rather deemed incomplete. Howard noted his staff is communicating with well operators.
“It’s only been in effect a few weeks,” he said. “It’s difficult for them to know what would be acceptable to us.”
He added that it is likely some operators will be required to drill monitoring wells rather than relying on records from existing wells.
Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the Department of Conservation, testified that oil drillers are still trying to adapt to the regulation of an activity they’ve been doing for decades.
“This is a new world. These people are trying to figure out how they’re going to live in this world,” he said. “But it’s here.”
Once the permanent regulations are in place next year, Marshall said, the self-certification process will end and well operators will be required to go through a permit process that will require on-the-ground inspections by state regulators.
Marshall, Howard and regulators from the Air Resources Control Board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control testified before a joint hearing of the Senate committees on Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and Water.
The hearing on implementation of the new law comes as some lawmakers continue to push for a moratorium on the controversial oil-drilling practice. Democratic Sens. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Mark Leno of San Francisco have introduced a bill calling for a moratorium. A similar proposal failed last year, and the only fracking legislation to survive was the regulatory measure authored by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills.
Pavley, who co-chaired Wednesday’s hearing, praised regulators for working quickly and cooperatively to implement the law. “There is a lot more transparency in the process,” she said. “We’re finding out a lot more today than we knew a year ago.”
The law also requires that an independent scientific study on fracking-related issues such as seismic safety be completed by the end of this year. Lawmakers were told that the Brown administration has selected UC Davis chemical engineering professor Robert Powell to head the study panel and that a contract to conduct the study is expected to be executed soon.