Fracking: Central Valley boom or environmental nightmare?

FRESNO, Calif.

Huge deposits of natural gas and oil could be unearthed by the process known as fracking, but it comes with loud criticism from environmental concerns.

The key to ending America's reliance on oil from the Middle East lies right underneath the Central Valley, according to the oil & gas industry.

The U.S. Energy Department says a 1750-mile swath of underground shale rock -- known as the Monterey Shale Formation -- contains more than 15 billion barrels of oil.

"If we do get to it and get it to the marketplace, California will be part of energy independence for North America," said Assm. Jim Patterson, Fresno.

Patterson hosted a forum Tuesday touting a potential energy renaissance for California. But the method of releasing all that energy is getting drilled by environmentalists.

The oil and natural gas are locked in rock thousands of feet underground, way below the water table, and a high-tech operation known as fracking removes it.

It involves injecting tens of thousands of gallons of water and chemicals into the rock at high pressures. And although the resulting fuel is cheap and much cleaner than coal, environmentalists say fracking is dangerous.

"We need a moratorium now to protect our groundwater, our wells in Fresno, against possible contamination," said the Sierra Club's Gary Lasky. "It's not worth the risk."

Lasky is concerned the chemicals used in fracking -- including carcinogens like toluene and benzene -- will taint the water we drink. But supporters say it's an overblown concern.

"Despite all the hype, the Obama administration looked very hard, the EPA has looked very hard for groundwater contamination and there just isn't any," said Brigham McCown, a former Dept. of Transportation official in the George W. Bush administration.

Researchers have found methane gas in some wells near fracking operations, and the EPA is now conducting its first comprehensive national study.

In the meantime, California is moving forward with development that could create two million new jobs by some estimates.

"I think it's a great opportunity, but we have to do it right, we have to do it safely," Patterson said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill placing regulations on new fracking operations starting on January 1. Legislators are still tweaking the rules, but Patterson expects major new projects by 2015.

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