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Fracking California: The view from Kern County

Lisa Morehouse
Kern County residents Rodrigo Romo and Anabel Marquez oppose fracking. They are standing with organizer Jaun Flores in a community garden surrounded by oil wells that were fracked.

In the farming town of Shafter, in Kern County, kids are playing outside Sequoia elementary school. On the other side of the playground is an organic community garden where some people are picking vegetables.

“We are just cutting little zucchinis because the season is coming to pick them,” says Shafter resident Rodrigo Romo.

Anabel Marquez adds, “It is time to take them out. We are using them to make food, to cook.”

Romo says many people in Shafter are farmworkers who know how to grow vegetables. But they don’t have their own yards to make a garden. Marquez says having this space has been great, but they were surprised – and unhappy – when oil wells were drilled barely 100 yards away.  

“We want to eat healthy and the contamination gets closer,” she says. “How can we advise our children on what is healthy eating if the contamination is here? It’s sad, very sad.”

Standing in this garden, I can see three wells, and each of those wells has been fracked. Juan Flores works with the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, a national environmental justice organization.  

“Last year, when we had the grand opening of the garden,” he says, “we noticed they were putting those pumps up, that there was some drilling was going on. The smells could be so bad that it could actually hurt you. You could get headaches, be dizzy, get nauseous. So that’s when we got all into getting to know more about fracking, and getting community members educated.”

Rodrigo Romo believes people in the community – including his own daughter – have gotten sick since the wells were drilled. Similar complaints have come from people near fracking operations in other parts of the country. A citizens group in Pennsylvania has documented 27 cases of residents complaining of  breathing problems, skin rashes, nose bleeds, and headaches. A Texas family sued an oil company for poisoning their water supply and livestock. In April a jury awarded them $2.9 million in damages.

Exploring California’s oil country

Credit Lisa Morehouse
The Kern River Oil Field in the city of Bakersfield is over 10 thousand acres large, and densely packed with pumpjacks.

I head out to the western part of Kern County, where most of California’s oil production, and fracking, has taken place. It’s very dry land. And It’s called the Petroleum Highway for a good reason, because all up and down this strip of highway pretty much as far as you can see are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of oil wells.

From afar, another large oil field – this one in the city of Bakersfield – looks like an anthill that’s been kicked over. It’s over 10 thousand acres large, and densely packed with pumpjacks, the devices that sit atop oil wells and are nicknamed “nodding donkeys” for the way their snouts bob up and down, relentlessly sucking oil from below.    

“We are looking at Kern River oil field,” says Kern County native Nick Ortiz who works for a trade group called the Western States Petroleum Association. He says oil was discovered here in the 1890s.

“In 2007, it produced its two-billionth barrel of oil. California has a rich oil history, something that in Kern County we’re rather proud of,” he says. “California is the third largest oil producing state in the nation, behind Texas and North Dakota.”

Part of that status is due to fracking. Ortiz says hydraulic fracturing is a tool that’s been used in California for decades and is well-understood, as it has been practiced. How fracking might be used in the future, though, is another question.

“When it comes to the Monterey, everyone sees the Monterey as a great economic opportunity and an opportunity to help fill the energy needs of Californians and to continue to drive California’s economy,” he says. “It’s an open question whether hydraulic fracturing is going to be the thing that unlocks the Monterey Shale and allows large-scale production.”

The industry insists on the need to keep exploring for oil in California.  

“We most definitely need petroleum in order to insure that our economy thrives,” says Ortiz. “And I think, Kern County is a great microcosm of that. When you look at our industries here, you have petroleum production, but you also have agriculture. You can’t plow a field without diesel. You can’t bring product to market without a truck.”

The view from a Kern County farm

Tom Frantz is a fourth-generation Kern County farmer, born and raised on the farm where he still works near Shafter. He props a ladder against the side of his barn and climbs up to the roof.

“This is my perch up here to see what’s around me, trees block my view when I’m on the ground,” he says. “The Tembler Range is to the west and south, the Tehachapis to the south and east, and Sierras directly east.”

The mountains form a kind of bowl here, trapping pollutants.  

“Fairly good day today as far as air quality goes,” he says. “It’s a little hazy, but not ugly gray-brown haze we have much of the time as place with worst air quality in the nation.”

In a study by the American Lung Association, Kern County topped most of the lists of the most polluted counties in the United States. Frantz says when it comes to pollution, there are lots of culprits: pesticides and trucks connected to farming, but also leakage of benzene and methane from oil production.   

We walk out to the orchards so he can prune almond trees, which he started growing here in 1983. Like a lot of farmers, Frantz owns this land, but not the mineral rights beneath it. The people who do can lease those mineral rights to oil companies.

“The fracking has started 10 years ago in this ag area where we’re standing, just a mile or two from here,” he says.

Now, he adds, wells have been fracked in every direction around him.  To Frantz, in places where agriculture thrives, oil and water don’t mix.  

“They’re taking it out of the water cycle,” he says. “When I water my trees, there’s trans-evaporation of water out of these leaves. That water goes into the air basically as steam and forms clouds somewhere and drops it again on the earth. When they use it for fracking they’ve destroyed it forever because they dispose of it then back 5,000 feet under the ground where it just stays forever. I don’t like that one bit.”

Fracking a single well can require two to eight million gallons of water.  Opponents question this scale of water use, especially in the middle of California’s historic drought. Frantz, though, is most concerned about the potential contamination of ground water. He’s worried about cement casings on underground pipes failing and leaking oil and chemicals.  He’s worried about spills above ground, too. In 2012 he videotaped a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum illegally dumping black liquid into an open pit a few feet from trees. The act led to a fine of $60,000.

“This is an almond at an immature stage,” he says, pointing one out to me. “Right now this almond is a jelly. See that liquid in there? It’s 100% water right now. That turns into a solid nut or seed in another month or so. Everything in this almond is dependent on what’s in the soil and what’s in the water that grows these trees.

“The first time something shows up in our almonds: a little chemical, little benzene, little trace; no one’s going to buy almonds from here anymore. We grow two billion pounds of almonds in a year right now. It’s like a $50 billion industry here in the valley. Fracking has the potential to wipe that out, to put a reputation on our product.”

I bring up these health and safety concerns to Nick Ortiz of the Western States Petroleum Association. He refers to a bill passed in Sacramento last year, Senate Bill 4. SB4 requires oil companies to register their fracking operations with the state and disclose them to nearby residents.  It also requires the state to conduct a study of fracking’s implications for health, the economy, and the environment.

“Californians, I think can be assured, regardless of where they are in California that under the rules that govern us today and all of the pieces of SB4 that are yet to be implemented, Californians will be well protected by the most comprehensive set of regulations in the nation,” he says.

Nevertheless, Ortiz acknowledges that the Western States Petroleum Association did not support the Legislature’s passage of SB4 last year.  

Living in a state of environmental and energy uncertainty

Back at the community garden in Shafter, residents like Rosario Garcia believe their questions aren’t being answered, and that fracking in their community is harmful.

“The climate is a little bad because they are excavating and putting in tons of chemicals,” he says.

Garcia says he’s had great difficulties breathing for two years after contracting Valley Fever. It’s a disease caused by certain fungi in the soil getting stirred up by things like farming, construction, and oil drilling.  Garcia says two of his best friends died from it.

“This illness comes from some time ago, and we are accelerating it because of the fracking,” he says.

Garcia’s nine-year-old son Miguel has been diagnosed with asthma.

“When I have asthma, my chest hurts, I have headaches,” he says. “It feels like if my heart was hurting but it’s actually my chest, and then I feel like if I was going to die. I have to not play around with dirt, not be outside, and stay housy. I get mad because I can’t play outside with my friends.”

Rosario Garcia points at his friends working in the garden.

“The truth is that a lot of people continue being sick,” he says. “Here you see three, but if you go to the town you see a lot, from the same thing.”

Fellow gardener Anabel Marquez says that people are scared, and that their fear is understandable. She says there’s a basic first step they all need to take.

“It is just that we need to educate ourselves and learn more to be able to defend ourselves,” she says.

Oil and farming are both central to California’s economy.  Both need water. Fracking is putting that old saying, that oil and water don’t mix, to the test.

This story is the first in a two-part series on fracking in California. Hear part two here.