No, it’s not the brown acid passed around at a 1960s rock concerts. Hydrofluoric acid is the most dangerous chemical you’ve never heard of, and it’s being trucked around California’s back roads and injected into oil wells, with virtually no oversight.
How bad is it? HF acid is extremely toxic; it can immediately and permanently damage lungs if inhaled, and a spill on skin is easily absorbed deep into the body’s tissues and changes bone calcium atoms to fluorine atoms.
Oh, and it corrodes glass, steel, and rock. This makes it attractive to the state’s oil drillers. They’ve been injecting it underground for years in highly diluted quantities to get out the last dregs of oil from a nearly depleted well. Now, they’re finding that injections in stronger concentrations (they’re tight-lipped about how strong) dissolves oil-bearing shale.
California is home to the Monterey Shale, estimated to hold 400 billion barrels of heavy sour crude oil and two-thirds of the total oil reserves remaining in the United States. Until recently, oil production had been declining as the easy-to-get oil was tapped out. However, new forms of well stimulation are making the oil drillers rush into, and offshore, California. Although California activists focus on fracking, acidizing seems to be used more and noticed less.
Robert Collier’s report Distracted by Fracking? states: “In California, at least, the obsession with fracking may be misplaced. In recent months, policymakers have begun to realize that the debate about fracking may be a distraction from the technology that’s the more likely candidate for tapping the Monterey Shale: A technique, already widely in use in the oil industry, known as ‘acidizing.’ ”
Dave Quast, California’s Energy in Depth representative tells TakePart that acidizing uses significantly less water than fracking: the total fluid volume is generally between 750 and 2000 gallons, 85 percent of which is water. In drought-prone California, that’s a point in its favor.
Acidizing with HF works much better than fracking in the Golden State because the oil-bearing shale is already naturally fractured and buckled from tectonic activity, Collier tells TakePart. “We know it’s dangerous, but we don’t know what it does downhole. There are known dangers, and then there are unknowns.”
It’s known that the acid forms a dense, low-lying cloud at a relatively cool 67 degrees Fahrenheit and that breathing it scars lungs. Much of the Monterey Shale oil drilling is done in Kern County, blazing hot in summer but prone to tule fog during winters much chillier than 67 degrees. HF acid is so worrisome that the United Steelworkers want its use phased out of oil refineries entirely, calling it a risk too great for the steelworkers and the 26 million Americans living near refineries.
But what’s not known about hydrofluoric acid? Three things, mainly: the concentrations used by oil companies, what happens over the long term when a rock-dissolving chemical is injected into rock, and what happens to those 2000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid-laced water?
And then there’s this.
The California Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration isn’t tracking HF acid usage underground within the state at all. The state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Regulations’ oversight has been sketchy—oil drillers must get a permit, but they don’t have to tell the state if they’re fracking, using acid, or something else.
A bill to regulate fracking in California, SB4, is moving through the state legislature, but is attracting some opposition from a coalition of environmentalists who want a moratorium instead of regulations. Acidizing regulations were added after the bill’s introduction, but oil lobbyists oppose even the regulations. Becky Bond, political director of CREDOMobile and a proponent of a moratorium, told reporters this, with a note of disbelief, “when we started the fracking coalition, we had no idea we also needed to tell politicians why it’s a bad idea to pump hydrofluoric acid underground!”
Truckin’ and trippin’ the bad acid throughout California’s fractured geology—what could go wrong?