by Leslie Layton
One of the key arguments made during the local fracking debate was based, at least in part, on an erroneous statement by county officials, ChicoSol has learned.
As a draft ordinance to prevent fracking was debated at public meetings early this year and last year, opponents often argued that a Butte County ban would serve a symbolic rather than regulatory role. The Butte County Department of Development Services (DDS) provided a key piece of evidence for that argument: No one, they said, had applied for a conditional use permit to drill a new gas well in more than 25 years.
But ChicoSol, working with partner Chico News & Review, has learned that for 22 of those 25 years, conditional use permits weren’t sought from the county for an astonishingly simple reason: They weren’t required. Butte County didn’t require conditional use permits for gas-well drilling until it adopted a new zoning code on Nov. 6, 2012.
In other words, no one has applied for a conditional use permit using any gas-drilling technique in the 31 months the requirement has been in place. But at least five permits for new gas wells were granted by the state during that 25-year period, this reporter has learned.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injection of water mixed with toxic chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock formations, and small frack jobs have been reported in neighboring counties, but not in Butte.
The statement that the county hadn’t granted permits for gas extraction in more than a quarter century appeared in a DDS PowerPoint presentation and was reiterated by officials from other departments at public meetings. It was reiterated at the Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 10 meeting, when the panel voted against adopting an ordinance to ban fracking, and it was restated by media outlets.
It’s not surprising, then, that given the impassioned nature of the local debate over hydraulic fracturing, there’s some disagreement over to what extent the no-new-permits declaration shaped the debate and its outcome.
“It was totally and completely deceptive,” said Dave Garcia, a founding member and spokesman for Frack-Free Butte County, the citizens’ coalition that is working to ban fracking in Butte County.
Todd Greene, a Chico State geologist who has provided testimony on fracking at public meetings, said it was “confusing” and in need of “qualification,” and that it was an inadvertent oversight.
“It’s important to keep in mind the big picture,” Greene said. “Their overall point is, this is not a gas-drilling county. If people are concerned about fracking, there still isn’t fracking going on here.”
Butte County does have 32 wells that are productive or idle, but its natural-gas production has been mostly declining for several decades. It has more than 200 abandoned gas wells that have been plugged with cement. So the debate over a fracking ban has often centered on whether fracking will ever become an issue.
Greene says geology and economics are major obstacles right now. “I’m not saying fracking won’t or can’t happen here,” Greene told supervisors before they took their final vote, “but it’s not economically viable now. Gas would have to be pretty high-priced, and there are other places people would go first.”
In a June 24 interview, DDS officials argued that its no-new-permits statement wasn’t deliberately obfuscating. “I know we did not intentionally mislead anyone,” said DDS Director Tim Snellings. “We worked with the information we had at the time. I don’t think this is confusing because what we said is true.”
But the statement has wrought confusion because of new wells that were drilled in Butte County some 15 years ago that have been reported by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which is part of the state’s Department of Conservation and is charged with overseeing gas and oil extraction throughout the state.
“Determining how many natural-gas-production wells have been drilled in the last 25 years would require a significant amount of research,” said Donald Drysdale, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation. “What we can say with confidence to meet your deadline is that at least five natural gas wells have been drilled in the county since 1999,” Drysdale wrote in a June 29 email.
Drysdale noted that three of the five wells have been shut down. Two of the wells, named “Pirate” and “Volcano” and drilled by Alanmar Energy in the Perkins Lake gas field near Durham, are still active.
It happens that those wells sounded the alarm for Garcia last spring as he was poking around the DOGGR site in an effort to understand why Butte County’s gas production had increased briefly around 1998. Garcia wondered why no conditional use permits had been granted for those wells by Butte County.
So he emailed a two-page letter to Snellings and asked the department to “explain the incorrect data of ‘no new permits in 25 years.’” Garcia explained the data he found on DOGGR’s site.
Snellings wrote back, and according to an email provided by Garcia, outlined the next steps the county would take to regulate drilling and declined a meeting with Garcia.
The Board has since banned the disposal of fracking waste in Butte County. And Snellings said that his department will clarify the no-new-permits statement late this year, when the Board considers adopting a use-permit requirement specifically for fracking.
Snellings and Assistant Director Pete Calarco indicated they were surprised when Garcia brought the Pirate and Volcano wells to their attention. “I don’t think we were aware that the state had these two wells listed,” Snellings said. “And in our examination of what happened …we went back and looked at our history… that’s when we discovered that permits were not required. That’s kind of the path.”
Many of the citizens who have testified at county meetings worry that either the act of fracking or the disposal of waste could endanger the Tuscan Aquifer and future drinking-water supplies.
In a June 29 email, Calarco stressed that the regulations that are being adopted by the county mean that gas-drilling projects are now required to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
DOGGR has only recently begun regulating hydraulic fracturing, and environmentalists like Garcia argue that it’s too friendly with the oil-and-gas industry. But Garcia believes that county officials are ill-prepared to help regulate drilling activity.
In June 2016, a Frack-Free Butte County initiative will appear on the ballot that would ban fracking. County Counsel Bruce Alpert has said the ordinance drafted by citizens may not withstand a court challenge. But Garcia says that even if the ordinance is imperfect, it’s the best option.
Snellings said DDS will enforce the county regulations already in place and any that are passed in the future.
Leslie Layton is a freelance writer who has covered energy and other issues. This story was published in partnership with the Chico News & Review.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @ChicoSolNews.