The future of the f-word
An investigation into the secretive world of fracking and what it means to California
On a recent summer morning, Dave Garcia, the political chair of the Sierra Club’s Northern California Yahi chapter, occasionally interrupted a tour of gas wells in the Sutter Buttes to point out signs of wildlife: a scampering cottontail rabbit, a vigilant red-tailed hawk or whizzing western kingbirds.
Garcia had brought a pair of journalists here to witness fracking in the Northern Sacramento Valley, something that most Northern Californians probably have no idea is underway in this area. The well sites appear almost deserted—there are no gas flares, no trucks moving huge tanks of water, no towering pump jacks. In fact, rarely were people even seen at these electronically monitored stations.
But according to an industry website, 15 of the dozens of Sutter County gas wells were fracked a couple of years ago by Venoco, a Denver-based oil-and-gas company. These are small frack jobs, but Garcia is nonetheless concerned about possible contamination of the Tuscan Aquifer that slopes from the Sierras to the west side of the Buttes.
Last Wednesday (Sept. 11), lawmakers at the state Capitol passed Senate Bill 4, which provides California with its first regulatory framework designed for fracking. But the bill itself has become the object of controversy and probably won’t resolve the debate any time soon. Environmentalists like Garcia want to halt fracking—not regulate it—and argue that SB 4 may do more to harm than help their effort.
Anti-fracking activists say they don’t trust the oil-and-gas industry, which uses its vast resources and influence to fight regulation. They also don’t trust the state regulators who they say have failed to apply laws that are already in place, such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The oil industry faces a citizen backlash in a number of communities across the state.
In Butte County, a group belonging to the Chico Citizen Action Network is pressing for a local ordinance to halt fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—a procedure used to capture hard-to-reach pools of oil and gas—has fueled a debate nationwide. Projects that involve a combination of fracking and new horizontal-drilling techniques have been linked to water and air pollution and increased seismic activity—and in West Texas, water shortages.
In California, most of the debate has focused on development of the Monterey Shale in the southern San Joaquin Valley. There, oil companies want to exploit the nation’s largest shale-oil reserve. They’ve already begun—using fracking, horizontal drilling and a technique called “acidizing.”
California is on the brink of a great experiment in fracking regulation. SB 4, sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), has intensified debate on a fundamental issue—whether fracking can be successfully regulated and safely conducted. The bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign readily, will establish some of the nation’s most stringent regulations for fracking and acidizing.
In the bill, lawmakers attempt to carve out a middle ground between those who see fracking as a costly environmental ransacking; those who think it can be an engine for economic growth, with risks that can be reasonably managed; and the oil industry itself.
But many Californians in the first group see the compromise as suspect. Unlike other environmental causes—say, the northern spotted owl—this will have immediate consequences. A Central Valley oil boom will be transformative, affecting air quality and water supplies and increasing tax revenue and job growth.
In the Northern Sacramento Valley, gas-well fracking has been underway, quietly and without oversight, for years, underscoring the freedom the industry has had to innovate at will. California was late in regulating fracking; on her website, Pavley points out that 14 other oil-producing states already regulate the practice.
Local environmentalists like Garcia say they’re facing a tougher battle in the wake of SB 4’s passage, but they still plan to ask the Butte County Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance that halts the practice. If that fails, they may take it to the voters directly next year.
Garcia’s view of SB 4 reflects that of most environmental organizations in the state. “It wasn’t a good law to begin with,” he said, “and then they amended it. It’s going to make this fight a lot worse.”
The Sierra Club opposed the bill even before it was amended Sept. 6, arguing that it didn’t require the full industry disclosure communities need to prevent water and air contamination. After last-minute revisions, the California League of Conservation Voters and several more groups withdrew their support, saying the bill was no longer acceptable.
Hitting the information wall
Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth, then blasting a sand-water-chemical mix into an encased well at high pressure to fracture rock and free trapped oil and gas reserves. It requires large volumes of water—a single operation might need 5 million gallons if the well is drilled horizontally.
By drilling horizontally, a well can be extended for thousands of feet. In some of these huge projects, chemicals have leaked or gas has seeped into aquifers in incidents that were linked to faulty well construction.
In California, fracking at the Inglewood Oil Field—the nation’s largest urban oil field in Los Angeles—produced “noxious fumes” in a 2006 blowout and has wrecked nearby houses, said Brenna Norton, Southern California organizer for Food & Water Watch.
In the fracking world, the word itself can mean different things.
Sometimes it means “acid fracking,” or acidizing a well. That involves injecting huge volumes of highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid, and other acids, into a well to dissolve the rock.
In the Northern Sacramento Valley, fracking means fracturing rock in vertical or slanted gas wells, said Chico State geology professor Todd Greene. Fracking here “is not anywhere close to the type of fracking you see in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New York,” he explained.
Greene, who worked for the oil industry before launching a career in academia, notes that this part of the valley sits on sandstone—not shale rock. This area has gas, but little to no oil. Horizontal drilling that makes large-scale projects feasible isn’t usually effective in sandstone formations, Greene said.
But fracking in the North Valley still raises troubling questions that reflect secrecy and questionable state monitoring. Greene agrees, for example, that it would be useful to know what’s being done with the contaminated wastewater. On well pads in the Sutter Buttes, green drums hold up to 3,500 gallons.
Many of the wells are accessible from Pass Road, which winds along the base of what is known as the world’s smallest mountain range. The gas wells are behind gates that bear no-trespassing and danger signs. If you approach the wells, you might catch the wafting smell of gas or chemicals, or hear a humming or pumping sound. Homes on domestic wells are occasionally sprinkled around the bluffs.
If you try to find out more—the direction of the drilling, where the wastewater goes—you run into a wall of recalcitrance. State regulators balked at the word “interview,” and an oil conglomerate provided what amounted to a “we-don’t-talk-to-the-media” statement.
A trail of fracked wells
The Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) regulates California well-drilling, but hasn’t yet begun requiring an additional permit for fracking. DOGGR’s administration has been widely criticized in the past for failing to even monitor fracking.
Officials declined to be interviewed for this story beyond an email exchange with a public-affairs staff person. Yet, in response to critics, DOGGR began compiling records on well-fracking last year, said Kyle Ferrar, state coordinator for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance.
FracTracker has identified 237 fracked wells that haven’t been reported to DOGGR as fracked. One of those missing from the DOGGR database is a Sutter Buttes well.
Sometime after Venoco fracked wells in the Sutter Buttes in 2011, it sold its Northern California holdings. DOGGR’s website indicates the wells are now under management of Vintage Production California.
An effort to reach someone in Vintage’s Bakersfield office was fruitless. Its parent company, Occidental Petroleum, has a media/communications number on its website. A recording instructs media representatives not to leave messages. Email communication only, the company says.
External Relations Manager Amy Fonzo responded to an inquiry, saying that due to “competitive and proprietary reasons,” Vintage doesn’t discuss its operations.
Property owners who lease land don’t always fare well with the oil giants, either. A Glenn County landowner contacted the Butte Environmental Council (BEC) earlier this year after an exchange with a company that drills for gas on her property. She was worried about fracking and had become reluctant to sign over mineral rights.
The company told her it wasn’t fracking, but if she didn’t renew the contract, it could access gas on her land from a neighboring parcel, according to BEC.
Garcia first learned about horizontal fracking from the HBO film Gasland, which documented cases of groundwater contamination, and in the most extreme instance, tap water that caught fire. He then turned for information on this area to the website FracFocus, where oil and gas companies have been asked to report fracking.
FracFocus provides a rough and incomplete sketch of fracking in the state. Perhaps most alarming to many community activists is the fact that drilling companies don’t provide complete listings of the chemical concoctions they’re using, noting in some cases that an additive is a “trade secret.”
“Oil companies are way ahead of us in terms of what’s going on,” Garcia said. “They’re marching right along in their shroud of secrecy.”
In this regulatory vacuum, and in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 passage of SB 4, there was an urgency in groups hoping to influence the direction of the debate.
Where are the jobs?
On a July evening in a Marysville meeting hall, Bishop Ron Allen stood at the podium, discussing in his booming preacher’s voice unemployment, oil and untapped riches.
Allen, the founder of Sacramento’s International Faith Based Coalition, lent his oratory skill to promote a fracking boom at an “educational summit.” Allen told an audience that included Tea Party supporters and landowners that expanded oil and gas production would provide jobs and generate income in the “underserved community.”
“California has been standing on the sidelines despite having 60 percent of America’s shale [oil] reserves right beneath our feet,” Allen declared, and then added for effect, “Somebody help us, please.”
The summit was sponsored by Roseville’s nonprofit Coalition of Energy Users. It was one of several events this past summer, held by various groups, in which fracking was presented as a path out of poverty and economic stagnation.
Outside the summit meeting hall in Marysville, anti-fracking protesters held signs denouncing Big Oil and passed out fliers. Some of the protesters had requested seats at the summit weeks in advance, but said that when they arrived, they found their names on a “Do not admit” list and were greeted by members of the Sons of Liberty motorcycle club.
Job creation is often trumpeted as a benefit of expanded production, but it’s hard to know whether fracking creates work on the valley’s northern gas fields.
Sutter County has one of California’s highest unemployment rates, and yet is a top producer among the state’s counties of dry gas—the gas that comes from fields without any oil in the mix. In July, the county’s unemployment was at 13.6 percent, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the statewide average at 8.7 percent.
In any case, environmentalists argue that the hidden costs of fracking aren’t being considered.
“We’re going after the dirtiest fossil fuels that are left,” said Kassie Siegel, Climate Law Institute director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued DOGGR on issues related to fracking and CEQA enforcement.
“We are going to have higher and higher health and environmental costs,” Siegel added. “People will get sick and the climate crisis will get worse.”
Activists have been fighting for a moratorium that would stall fracking pending the outcome of scientific study. Not much is really known about how California’s fault lines might interact with fracking-produced fluids. In Ohio and other states, seismic activity has been linked to the practice of using injection wells for wastewater.
The oil industry fought off several bills that would have imposed a statewide moratorium on fracking in the 2013 legislative session. It also opposed Pavley’s compromise SB 4.
On its website, the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, says a law based on SB 4 should, at the least, end talk of fracking moratoriums.
“There is no longer a place in California for the emotion-fueled demands for a moratorium of hydraulic fracturing,” wrote Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the WSPA.
SB 4 directs DOGGR to establish regulations for fracking and acidizing. Oil and gas companies will be required to obtain a permit and must provide more disclosure of chemical additives. They will have to advise neighbors of plans to frack. The bill requires an independent scientific study.
Environmental organizations say they’re worried that DOGGR will rubber-stamp permit applications instead of requiring environmental review. They’re worried that the bill prevents imposition of a statewide moratorium at some future point, though Pavley has disputed this.
Organizations that support a ban or moratorium warn against reliance on regulation. They often note industry exemptions from the nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act through what’s popularly known as the “Halliburton Loophole.”
Food & Water Watch lists eight California communities where resolutions or stronger actions have been taken, including Berkeley, Culver City and Marin County.
A few days after passage of Pavley’s bill, several anti-fracking activists set up a table at the Saturday Chico farmers’ market, collecting signatures on a ban petition. Activist Willow Dejesus said she’s worried about all the usual problems associated with fracking, and in particular threat to water supplies and aquifer contamination.
“Water doesn’t get any closer to the heart of our livelihood,” said Dejesus. “I don’t think regulation is an answer. There are tons of regulations in place, but there are always exemptions, always people who don’t follow regulations, always accidents.”
Though FracFocus doesn’t show fracked wells in Butte County, Garcia says he’s identified 10 active gas wells in the county. Once natural-gas prices start climbing back up, the wells could be subject to fracking, he said.
“These companies are going to be going to the old gas wells they have in Butte County and reworking them,” Garcia said. “That’s why it’s critical to get a moratorium.”
California’s fracking story has really just begun.