The intense rainstorms sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean began to pound central California on Christmas Eve in 1861 and continued virtually unabated for 43 days. The deluges quickly transformed rivers running down from the Sierra Nevada mountains along the state’s eastern border into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and mining settlements. The rivers and rains poured into the state’s vast Central Valley, turning it into an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Thousands of people died, and one quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned. Downtown Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown water filled with debris from countless mudslides on the region’s steep slopes. California’s legislature, unable to function, moved to San Francisco until Sacramento dried out—six months later. By then, the state was bankrupt.
A comparable episode today would be incredibly more devastating. The Central Valley is home to more than six million people, 1.4 million of them in Sacramento. The land produces about $20 billion in crops annually, including 70 percent of the world’s almonds—and portions of it have dropped 30 feet in elevation because of extensive groundwater pumping, making those areas even more prone to flooding. Scientists who recently modeled a similarly relentless storm that lasted only 23 days concluded that this smaller visitation would cause $400 billion in property damage and agricultural losses. Thousands of people could die unless preparations and evacuations worked very well indeed.
LONGMONT, Colo. — This old farming town near the base of the Rocky Mountains has long been considered a conservative next-door neighbor to the ultraliberal college town of Boulder, a place bisected by the railroad and where middle-class families found a living at the vegetable cannery, sugar mill and Butterball turkey plant.
But this month, Longmont became the first town in Colorado to outlaw hydraulic fracturing, the oil-drilling practice commonly known as fracking. The ban has propelled Longmont to the fiercely contested forefront of the nation’s antifracking movement, inspiring other cities to push for similar prohibitions.
But it has also set the city on a collision course with oil companies and the State of Colorado.
“People really didn’t think through this too well,” Mayor Dennis L. Coombs said, sounding weary at the prospect of an onslaught of lawsuits. “We are where we are. I guess you have to respect the people.”
Political obstacles to oil and gas production are starting to fall away at the state and local levels as voters, elected officials and courts jump on the energy boom bandwagon.
Voters are rewarding local politicians who support production. Ballot measures are distributing potential tax windfalls broadly. And most state legislatures are focused on managing the economic and environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, so the drilling boom can speed up rather than slow down.
The trend is crucial to the nation's energy future because oil and gas production is regulated and taxed almost entirely by state and local governments. The federal government's role is largely advisory, except on federal lands and on pipelines.
"Fracking is happening and it's not going to stop, so we have to take the high road of good regulation and taxes so communities are better off, not worse off, after it's done," says Ted Boettner, executive director of the liberal West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
Companies are racing to find ways to recycle the water used in hydraulic fracturing, chasing an emerging market that could be worth billions of dollars.
From energy industry giants Halliburton Corp. HAL -1.04% and Schlumberger Ltd. SLB -0.52% to smaller outfits such as Ecologix Environmental Systems LLC, companies are pursing technologies to reuse the "frack water" that comes out of wells after hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"—the process of using highly pressured water and chemicals to coax oil and gas out of shale-rock formations.
While the recycled water can't currently be cleaned up enough for drinking or growing crops, it can be cleaned of chemicals and rock debris and reused to frack additional wells, which could sharply cut the costs that energy companies face securing and disposing of water.
Some companies are finding it is still cheaper in many parts of the U.S. to inject the wastewater deep underground instead of cleaning it, which has slowed adoption of recycling technology. But experts say that is likely to change as fracking grows.
At Schlumberger, which predicts that a million new wells will be fracked around the world between now and 2035, reducing freshwater use "is no longer just an environmental issue—it has to be an issue of strategic importance," Salvador Ayala, vice president of well-production services, told a recent conference.
Though fracking has brought U.S. oil production to its highest level in more than 14 years and produced a glut of natural gas, it requires huge amounts of water, raising costs for energy companies and spurring opposition from environmental groups at a time when some states are suffering through droughts.
California begins a controversial experiment to curb climate change on Wednesday: The state will start rationing the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit.
It's the most ambitious effort to control climate change in the country. Some say the plan will cost dearly; supporters say it's the route to a cleaner economy.
Here's how the climate deal works. Big companies must limit the greenhouse gases they emit — from smokestacks to tailpipes — and they have to get permits for those emissions. The clock starts Jan. 1.
Most of these permits are free, but the state has held back some, to sell at an auction on Nov. 14. Lots of companies will have to buy some to cover their pollution, and no one knows exactly how much a permit will sell for.
That uncertainty has led to a lot of self-examination about energy use by people like Nathan Brostrom, vice president of business operations at the University of California. "We're trying to control our own destiny in terms of bringing down our carbon emissions," says Brostrom, "so we are not going to be subject to the fluctuations of the auction."