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Beverly Hills 90210 and Fracking – A Connection?

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From Marcellus Drilling News9/27/2012

Anti-drillers in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio decry fracking and it’s “hazards” saying it could never be done near populated areas. They don’t want it done in any location, to be sure! But especially not near a heavily populated area. Can’t be done safely, they say. Is drilling in general and fracking in particular really hazardous when done near or (gasp) in a city?
Both conventional and unconventional drilling sink a hole straight down. Both typically use fracking—even in New York (bet you didn’t know that). But unconventional drilling, after going down vertically, then turns and drills horizontally through a shale layer. About the only real difference between the two types of drilling is the amount of water used in fracking. Conventional wells use less than 75,000 gallons of water for drilling a well. Unconventional wells use 3-5 million gallons of water—sometimes more, sometimes less. The volume of water used is the chief difference between conventional and unconventional drilling. Same technologies, same processes, just more water needed and a heck of a lot more gas comes out of the ground with a horizontal well.
Back to the original question. Is drilling—whether conventional or unconventional—unsafe in populated areas? Let’s let Beverly Hills High be our guiding example:
Right at the heart of one of the most affluent and exclusive communities in the country, oil producer Venoco extracted almost 114,000 barrels of crude and 103 million cubic feet of natural gas, as well as 807,000 barrels of waste water, from 19 conventional wells on the campus of the famous Beverly Hills High School last year, according to state records.
Across Beverly Hills, 95 wells are currently producing from two pools, which lie entirely beneath a heavily built up area, stretching along Pico, Olympic and Santa Monica Boulevards. The wells have been drilled from four clusters (of which the High School is one), and are hidden in windowless buildings, but are otherwise part of the normal urban streetscape.
The field as a whole produced 805,000 barrels of crude oil in 2011, 1 million cubic feet of natural gas and 8.8 million barrels of waste water. The Nileguide blog gives some idea of how the wells have been blended into the urban scene: here
Royalties from oil and gas earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the school’s general fund.*
Calling Erin Brockovich
Erin Brockovich sued Venoco over the wells, claiming pollution from the operation has caused cancer. But it seems the judge was not star-struck with her performance:
Between 2003 and 2006, six lawsuits were brought against Venoco, the school district and others on behalf of approximately 1,000 former students, alleging that pollution in the air, water and soil as a result of the wells had caused illnesses, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
Some of the claims were brought by campaigning lawyer Erin Brockovich – famous for securing $333 million from Pacific Gas and Electric in an earlier pollution case, and immortalized by actress Julia Roberts…
But in a setback for the toxic-tort lawyer, twelve test cases were dismissed in 2006. The judge ruled the claimants had failed to prove any medical link between their illnesses and the alleged emissions.*
To get past the ongoing litigation from piranha-like personal injury lawyers swarming around, Venoco is reportedly settling the outstanding lawsuits—but they’re not admitting guilt and not removing the wells.
Lessons Learned
The drilling at Beverly Hills High is conventional, not unconventional horizontal fracking. Still, we can draw some conclusions based on the 90210 example:
  1. Fracking could be done safely in heavily urbanized areas (although truck traffic and noise are drawbacks).
  2. People are still suspicious about the safety of drilling—both conventional and unconventional.
  3. The drilling industry has not done a good job of alleviating public concerns.
We’re not saying fracking should be done in center city—we’re saying, however, it could be done, and Beverly Hills is a great example that punctures anti-driller arguments to the contrary. Positive drilling actions speak volumes louder than naysaying words.

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