Hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting natural gas from rock and shale by hitting it with high-pressure water and chemicals to cause large fissures, has come to Southern California, despite the major earthquake potential here and the documented evidence that fracking leads to elevated seismic activity.

Yesterday, Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director behind the anti-fracking movie Gasland, witnessed fracking going on adjacent to an oil field in Baldwin Hills, close to a residential neighborhood as well as a public park, and directly on a known fault line. This is a fairly new phenomenon, where oil and gas companies use the oil lands they’ve already leased for fracking. The Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group, promised yesterday to voluntarily report fracking activity at FracFocus, a website tracking fracking across the country. The WSPA said that companies fracked on 628 wells in California last year, out of tens of thousands of oil and gas wells.

Fox held a press event in Baldwin Hills yesterday and spoke last night at the Hammer Museum in Westwood about this new threat. “This could trigger a 7.4 earthquake,” he said bluntly.

“There’s a clear link between earthquakes and fracking,” Fox added, citing incidents in Arkansas and Ohio. Others have spoken out about this seismic risk from fracking, which is often caused not by the fracking, but by the injection of wastewater back into the ground. A deputy secretary of the US Department of the Interior recently acknowledged that a recent increase in earthquakes in the Midwest has a correlation with the injection of wastewater, though he cautioned that the earthquakes were typically small. However, that was before oil and gas companies decided to use the same practices in the earthquake region of California.

“We are running out of the easy oil and gas to get at,” said Bill McKibben, the writer and environmental activist at the Hammer Museum forum. “Instead of taking this as a signal to transition to new sources of energy, the oil and gas industry used this as a signal to go after the hard-to-get hydrocarbons and literally break the world apart.”

Last week, Vermont became the first state in the country to ban fracking, and cities all over the Northeast, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York (Pittsburgh being the biggest), have done the same. Fox hopes that a similar coalition can come together to ban fracking in California. The state is a new one for fracking, but it includes the Monterey shale in the central coast area, which according to Fox holds 60-70% of the natural gas resources in the United States. California currently has no fracking regulations at all, and the ones currently working their way through the legislature were written and supported by the natural gas industry. Though the state is just beginning to be a site for fracking, it’s already a voracious consumer of natural gas. California gets 40% of its electricity from natural gas, the highest percentage in the nation.

Groups like Food and Water Watch and Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community have gotten involved in opposing the expansion of fracking into California, and are pushing for a citywide ban in Los Angeles as well as a statewide ban. They do not want to see the state turned into what we’re seeing in Pennsylvania and across the country, with increased toxicity from fracking, water contamination, public health crises, and of course, more seismic activity.

“It’s an act of hubris for these companies to cross the line into the New York watershed, or to drill in deep water, or to bait earthquakes in LA,” Fox said. “If you don’t think they’re willing to risk an earthquake here, go to the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve lost the Gulf for a generation. I said that to a biologist, and they said, ‘we’ve lost it as an ecosystem, but not as a place to develop oil and gas.’ They’ve turned the Gulf into an oil processing center, not a place to live.”

An aide from Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz’ office attended the event, telling the packed crowd that his boss was “actively interested in banning fracking in Los Angeles.” He added that “If this many people showed up for any issue on the City Council, it would pass.”

But it will not be easy. At Fox’ press conference, the oil and gas industry distributed flyers attacking him and his films. And even the setting of the forum last night showed the ubiquitous nature of the oil and gas industry. The Hammer Museum shares a building with corporate offices for Occidental Petroleum.

David Dayen

David Dayen