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HANFORD — An oil-industry technology called fracking is fast becoming the focus of intense discussion about the economic and energy future of the San Joaquin Valley.

Called fracking, it involves injecting high-pressure fluids underground to liberate oil trapped inside rock. Using fracking in combination with horizontal drilling, oil companies are exploring the Monterey Shale formation, a huge oil deposit thousands of feet below Kings and other Valley counties.

The estimated amount of oil —15 billion barrels — and the potential economic benefit — up to 195,000 jobs, by one estimate — has grabbed everybody’s attention.

Oil companies are drilling more test wells to see if large-scale production is possible (the jury is still out on that). Local politicians are drooling over the possibility of ending the Valley’s chronically high unemployment. Environmental groups worry about what such large-scale oil production would mean for an area that already suffers from badly polluted air, contaminated well water and other environmental negatives.

The discussion started with a focus on potential groundwater contamination from the hydraulic fluids that are injected into the ground during the fracking process. But the dialogue is shifting away from specific concerns about fracking to worries about expanded oil production in general.

Environmentalists believe regular spills and accidents pollute groundwater despite regulations designed to prevent it from happening.

“Some aspect of the oil drilling process caused the problem,” said Gary Lasky, president of Fresnans Against Fracking. “This is kind of where we’re at right now.”

But Lasky has a bigger fish to fry: climate change. He estimated 70-80 percent of the fossil fuels now in the ground need to stay there to keep climate change from having a catastrophic impact.

Oil industry representatives generally steer clear of references to climate change. They focus more on the technique of fracking itself, noting that it has been part of oil drilling in some form for a long time.

“There is very little evidence if any that it has ever harmed groundwater,” said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association.

“The question is, are those risks being properly and successfully managed? The answer is clearly yes,” Hull added.

Hull wonders if fracking critics aren’t simply opposed to “petroleum production of any kind.”

Hull noted that SB 4, signed into law this year by Gov. Jerry Brown, is the most stringent fracking regulation in the U.S. It requires oil companies to identify the location of fracked wells and the chemicals being used.

Industry figures also point out that renewable energy resources meet only a fraction of U.S. energy needs.

“We’re going to need petroleum for a very long time, regardless of what our energy portfolio is,” Hull said.

But Lasky remains concerned about the pollution impact of continuing to burn huge amounts of fossil fuels in the Valley. The global effects of climate change weigh heavily on his mind.

“We’re now looking at a 5-8 degree Celsius rise [in temperature] if we don’t do anything about it,” he said.

“The economics, I’m not downplaying it,” Lasky said. “But we can create jobs that don’t involve extracting dirty fossil fuels that will harm our environment, harm our health.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.

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