Connecting the dots

Fractivist shows commonality in far-flung environmental issues, touts fracking ban

Frack-Free Butte County spokesman Dave Garcia is rallying support for a Butte County fracking ban appearing on June primary ballots.

Frack-Free Butte County spokesman Dave Garcia is rallying support for a Butte County fracking ban appearing on June primary ballots.

Photo by Ken Smith

In July 2013, a train loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. The blast and ensuing fire destroyed 30 buildings—about half of the city center—and another 39 structures were eventually torn down due to petroleum contamination.

Closer to home, the Los Angeles Times reported last year that 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County are being irrigated with “produced water” containing oil, acetone and carcinogenic benzene. Produced water is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process by which water is mixed with chemicals and injected into the ground to crack the earth and release natural gas and oil.

Though California water and the Canadian train disaster may seem far removed from one another, Frack-Free Butte County spokesman Dave Garcia believes they are intimately related. Garcia helped connect the dots at a meeting of the Sierra Club Yahi Group last Thursday (March 10). He also was promoting an initiative on the June primary ballot—Measure E—created by the local fractivist group calling for a local ban on the extraction process.

Garcia’s presentation was called “What Do Flint, Mich., the Porter Ranch Methane Leak and the Butte County Fracking Ban Have in Common?” The short answer, he said, is “government incompetence.”

Garcia noted that a lack of oversight and bureaucratic buck-passing played roles in the months-long, Los Angeles-area methane gas leak and the ongoing Flint water crisis. On the local front, he said Butte County officials have displayed a shocking lack of awareness about Butte County’s fracking potential that he believes necessitates a ban to keep the county safe.

“About three years ago, the Butte Environmental Council wrote a letter to Butte County asking if fracking could happen here,” Garcia said. “We got a letter back from a senior planner saying that they were unaware of any gas or oil wells in Butte County. So I started doing research and found out there are actually 32 wells [with the potential to be fracked] here.”

Garcia said county officials also claimed there were no new wells dug locally in the last 25 years, based on the fact that no conditional use permits had been issued. Garcia’s own research uncovered five wells dug since 1999, and the county chalked the mistake up to a change in the permitting process in 2012 (see “Cracks in the foundation,” Newslines, July 2, 2015).

“This is who’s supposed to be regulating these things and they have no idea what’s going on in their own county,” Garcia said.

During the 90-minute presentation, Garcia shared four videos that displayed further commonalities between environmental offenses.

The Lac-Mégantic explosion and the issue of oil-industry wastewater as irrigation were featured in two separate videos, a documentary produced by The Weather Channel and InsideClimate News called Boom and a news segment produced by Al Jazeera America covering the Kern County water debacle.

The Canadian disaster was, as Garcia put it, “made in America,” as the oil originated from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation, and Bakken oil is much more explosive than crude oil mined traditionally. The produced water used for irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley is sold to the Cawelo Water District by Chevron, and the Al Jazeera cameras showed reservoirs filled with mucky water containing what clearly appeared to be oil.

Garcia noted that oil trains travel along the Feather and Sacramento rivers and through Chico and Oroville. He also said that produce grown with fracking wastewater is sold locally at major supermarkets, sometimes even with an organic certification. Mother Jones ran an article (“These Popular Fruit and Veggie Brands May Be Grown With Oil Wastewater”) in July 2015, listing several of the brands by name.

The final video shown, The Sky Is Pink by Josh Fox, is a follow-up to his 2010 film Gasland. It focuses on how the oil industry uses pseudo-science and spins information to make questionable practices seem safe, including leaked oil industry documents that prove there are still problems with fracking involving well safety and water contamination.

Gasland was targeted by oil companies that claimed footage of Dimock, Penn., farmers lighting their tap water on fire couldn’t have been caused by fracking operations. Garcia noted after the film that, on the day of his Sierra Club presentation, a jury had ordered Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. to pay two Dimock farmers a total of $4.24 million.

In 2014, Frack-Free Butte County gathered more than 10,000 signatures to put the fracking ban initiative to Butte County voters, but a legal challenge from oil industry lawyers held up the petition based on minor errors (see “Goliath goes to court,” Newslines, June 26, 2014). Eventually, the county Board of Supervisors opted to hold the initiative for review for 30 days, which postponed the vote until this year.

Garcia expects an even tougher fight this time around, and the group has already started fundraising efforts. He noted oil companies spent millions fighting fracking bans in San Benito and Santa Barbara counties.

“It’s going to be a long and expensive fight,” he said.