Hundreds of activists – and neighbors of the nation's largest urban oil field, in Baldwin Hills – turned out Tuesday for a meeting with state officials over regulation of the controversial practice known as "fracking."
Environmental and energy officials are touring the state, seeking public opinion on the technique – also called hydraulic fracturing – and nearly everyone they heard from Tuesday night opposed it.
The method has been in the news on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in Rocky Mountain states for years. Still, in environmentally conscious California, "fracking" hasn't much been on activists' radar.
It certainly was at the Tuesday night meeting in Culver City, where it was the target of those worried about the technique's environmental impacts.
“I think our water supply is far more important, far more precious than any oil or gas that we can extract from the earth,” said Sally Hampton, Windsor Hills resident. "We can't drink oil."
Earlier this year, regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) admitted that the fracking had been used in California for decades.
But fracking is not regulated or tracked in California, so oil companies do not have to tell the state whether, where or when they're using the technique.
"It's definitely surprising that California doesn't have any regulations on fracking and doesn't know where it's happening," said Damon Nagami, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who follows fracking. "We wouldn't even know where to look for contamination because the state doesn't require companies to say where fracking is going on."
Fracking uses a high-pressure injection of water and chemicals underground to break up rock so that oil and gas can be released and pumped out. It's used in areas where normal drilling techniques are less effective.
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The technique has raised questions elsewhere in the country about contamination of underground aquifers – which often feed into drinking water supplies – with toxic chemicals.
Whether fracking triggers earthquakes is another question. A study from federal scientist released in April found that state with new fracking sites saw an unprecedented increase in earthquakes that was "almost certainly man-made."
In arid California, Nagami said, the vast amounts of fresh water needed for fracking are also at issue.
Under pressure from state elected officials and environmental groups, DOGGR, a division of the California Department of Conservation, recently agreed to craft draft regulations for fracking.
The meeting in Culver City Tuesday night was one of several events across California at which state officials are asking for public input on crafting those new regulations.
The next event is set for Wednesday in Long Beach from 7 to 9 p.m. at California State University-Long Beach Student Union, 1212 N. Bellflower Blvd.
A coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups called the Greater Baldwin Hills Alliance planned to submit specific requests to state officials for detailed regulations on Tuesday, according to Mark Glassock, a community liaison for South LA-based Community Health Councils, which is part of the Alliance.
They want to see an expansive definition of fracking, and for the state to control all aspect of fracking, from before drilling to after drilling, Glassock said.
They are also calling for the state to impose a moratorium on fracking while regulations are finalized – a process that could take well more than a year.
The meeting came as a study on fracking is expected from the company that operates the Baldwin Hills Oil Field, a 1,000-acre site that was first tapped in 1924.
Environmental activists are not sure what to expect from the state at Tuesday's meeting and in coming months.
"We'll see how it goes -- if they listen to the community, keep their minds open," Nagami said.
For their part, the oil and gas industry says fracking's longevity in California shows it is safe.
The Sacramento-based Western States Petroleum Association says fracking has been used for about 60 years with no evidence of harm.
"That history and the abundance of regulations that govern oil and gas drilling and production in California should give residents and others confidence this is safe, well-understood and closely monitored technology," the association's spokesman Tupper Hull said in a statement.
Yet there is serious concern about the technology in Baldwin Hills, where some 150,000 residents live within 1 1/2 miles of the oil field, according to activists. It has seen renewed pumping with the advent of new drilling techniques.
“When we first moved here, we thought the oil fields were just about dried out. But then with all this new technology that’s come out, the fracking issue, the field has been reborn," said Catherine Cottles, a Baldwin Hills resident. “It really jeopardizes the safety of this heavily-populated community.”
Plains Exploration and Production Company, or PXP, the company that operates oil wells in the Baldwin Hills field, has agreed to disclose its plans for fracking.
Under the terms of a settlement reached last year after activists sued Los Angeles County following a 2006 release of noxious gas from the oil field, PXP is in the process of finalizing a study on its fracking operations in Baldwin Hills.
The company says the Baldwin Hills Oil Field is the most-regulated oil field in the state.
Some locals released an anti-fracking YouTube video encouraging turnout at the Tuesday meeting, which is set to be held at Culver City Hall. More than 100 residents attended a meeting in March to learn about fracking in Baldwin Hills, according to a blog post from Nagami.