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Scientists affirm adequacy of Kern fracking reviews

Fracking (9)-53

In this file photo from a 2015 frack job in the Lost Hills area, Halliburton supervisors Ramon Perez, left, and Jonathon Vangel monitor Chevron's hydraulic fracturing operation at a command center about 60 feet from the fracking pad. The well where the fracking is taking place was another 400 feet from the pad and command center.

Bay Area scientists have signed off on a series of fracking permits in western Kern County, allowing the well-completion technique to proceed after Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place new, time-consuming review procedures prompted by environmental concerns and regulatory conflict-of-interest accusations.

The permit authorizations disclosed Friday by California's Geologic Energy Management Division cover a series of hydraulic fracturing operations Aera Energy LLC and Chevron proposed in Belridge and Lost Hills. The earliest were finalized in April; the most recent came earlier this month.

The permit-by-permit affirmations by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory conclude the companies' frack job proposals — and state oil regulators' earlier project approvals — conform to state regulations. But they do not signal a return to review procedures used prior to June of last year.

For one thing, the lab's scientists called for the use of an additional pre-frack assessment known as an axial dimensional stimulation area analysis. Also, California's Department of Finance Office of Audits and Evaluation continues to review the state's process for permitting frack jobs. Its audit is expected to be released later this year.

Newsom, under pressure from environmental groups that contend fracking puts groundwater and air quality at risk, put in place a de-facto ban on new fracking permits in June of 2019. Then in November he ordered that pending permit approvals be reviewed by LLNL for completeness. That's also when he ordered the finance office's review.

One concern state officials cited was that CalGEM officials were regulating oil companies whose stock they owned.

Fracking has for years been a central point of contention between environmentalists and the petroleum industry. In 2013, California adopted its first set of rules specific to the process. Oil companies say those regulations are among the strictest in the nation.

Hydraulic fracturing injects water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals at high pressure to blast open underground petroleum reservoirs. It is often confused with wastewater disposal operations.

Following LLNL reviews, Aera received final approval April 3 to frack two dozen wells in the Belridge area. On May 28 it got a green light to frack an additional dozen wells in the Lost Hills area.

The company said those 36 were among more than 100 approvals that had been pending before the state.

Three of the approved frack jobs have since been performed but the rest were suspended because low oil prices "made it not economic to continue," the company said. It added that it expects to frack the remaining 33 approved wells before the permits' expiration one year after issuance.

Aera said it was pleased to have received final approval for some fracking applications and that California residents can be confident the operations will abide by state environmental protections. The company said it was counting on the approvals to put hundreds of people back to work.

"Right now, this state needs jobs and stability," spokeswoman Cindy Pollard stated by email. "Our industry can provide that stability and help get people back on their feet, but only if we have regulatory certainty and a steady cadence for receiving permits going forward."

Chevron received approval Thursday for 12 wells in the Lost Hills area. The company said it was pleased to received its first fracking permits in two years.

"We look forward to completing these wells, which were drilled in 2018 and have been awaiting stimulation so they can start producing energy," Chevron said by email. It did not respond directly to a question on when it expects to move forward with the approved frack jobs.

"We are working on our execution plan," the email stated. "Its schedule will depend on several factors, including lead time to mobilize contractor resources and coordination with other work."

The CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group noted in an email that fracking in California has now been reviewed by third-party scientists at least three times and found to pose no adverse environmental impacts.

"Keeping energy production local is better for the environment rather than relying on foreign oil from Saudi Arabia," CEO Rock Zierman wrote.

An environmental group that has strongly opposed oil production in California, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, criticized the state's fracking approvals.

CBD lawyer Hollin Kretzmann said by email the laboratory reviews only assess whether an operator has completed its application properly.

"They do nothing to address significant environmental and health risks caused by fracking," he wrote. "Gov. Newsom should be prioritizing public health and safety instead of ramping up fracking in communities already overburdened by pollution.”

Kretzmann stated the state's fracking approval is discretionary and that CalGEM should do more to protect health, safety, property and natural resources. He added that the state's environmental assessment of Aera's and Chevron's projects relied on a Kern County review system that has since been judged invalid in court.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.