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Above the Monterey Shale, farmers worry fracking will destroy the land

by on August 05, 2013

Almaden Vineyards in Paicines. Photo: Michael Dubois.
Almaden Vineyards in Paicines. Photo: Michael Dubois.

Often missing from discussions about the potential Monterey Shale oil rush is a sense of the landscape that sits above the shale, a complex and tightly folded geological formation that underlies 1,750 square miles from Southern California to Monterey through Alameda County and north to Mendocino County.

Much of the extraction is taking place in pre-existing oil fields in the Central Valley. But some leases are close to rural communities, causing environmentalists and farmers to fret about the wisdom of using large volumes of water to fracture subterranean rock. The activity generates wastewater, which then must be stored underground elsewhere, in this earthquake-prone, water-starved region where native wildlife has already been marginalized, primarily through loss of habitat.

In this story in the Bay Nature series on the impacts of extreme energy, we’re focusing on Lockwood in southern Monterey County; Aromas, which lies at the intersection of Monterey and San Benito counties; and Paicines in San Benito County. These communities have witnessed seismic survey trucks and well-drilling crews pull into town, putting them potentially at risk for oil drilling operations.

Illustration: Emily Underwood.

Illustration: Emily Underwood.

The grapes of Lockwood

Paula Getzelman and her husband own Tre Gatti Vineyards, a small grape-growing operation in Lockwood, in south Monterey County and just a stone’s throw from Lake San Antonio, a major tourist magnet.

Ranching in Lockwood's golden hills. Photo: Sarah Phelan.

Ranching in Lockwood’s golden hills. Photo: Sarah Phelan.

Rolling hills dotted with scrub oak and pines, and grasses that turn golden in summer and  lush green in winter surround this community of ranchers and, more recently, grape and olive growers.

“It’s land you’d expect to see cattle grazing on,” Getzelman says.

From her living room, she can see San Antonio Lake, at least in non-drought years. It was once a river that emptied out of the Coastal Range and drained into the Salinas River, which runs north to Monterey and the Pacific Ocean. But San Antonio has been turned into a reservoir that farmers rely on to irrigate their crops.

Condors, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and owls sweep the skies. And badgers, coyotes, deer, elk, kit foxes, and squirrels cross the land.

“You can see their trails down to the lake,” Getzelman says.

She started educating herself about fracking two years ago, when an exploratory oil well was drilled ten miles from her place, and like most of the farmers here, she is concerned about water.

“Oil is important, energy is important, but once you’ve ruined the environment you are done,” Getzelman says. “In an area where agriculture drives the economy, that’s a harsh reality.”

She said that Monterey County planners seem more concerned about seismic issues related to injecting wastewater underground after wells are fracked, than water depletion and contamination. The extreme energy debate is mired in complexity.

“What’s missing from the conversation is an integration of all these separate facets,” she says. “ It’s like Chinese water torture.”

Fields of gold

Pat Lerman lives in Aromas, a small unincorporated community at the intersection of Monterey and San Benito County, close to Santa Cruz and Santa Clara county lines.

A dilapidated barn punctuates the hills around Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.

A dilapidated barn punctuates the hills around Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.

“It’s a hamlet in a valley, surrounded by soft rolling hills that turn golden in the summer,” she says.

The Pajaro River flows through town, which is surrounded by fields of artichokes, raspberries and strawberries.

“Up here in the northwest corner of the county, it’s berries and row crops like lettuces, spinach, and bell peppers, and apples and apricots,” Lerman says.

Thumper trucks roll down Highway 129, north of Aromas, during a seismological survey in 2012. Photo: Polly Goldman.

Thumper trucks roll down Highway 129, north of Aromas, during a seismological survey in 2012. Photo: Polly Goldman.

She’s the spokesperson for Aromas Cares for our Environment (ACE), a watchdog group that formed in June 2012, after “thumper” trucks rolled into town and started to simulate earthquakes and collect data showing underground locations of oil. So far, the seismic survey data has not translated into applications to permit oil drilling, but the community nevertheless began to organize.

“That was our warning, even though it turned out to be a false alarm,” Lerman says.

ACE fears Aromas could become an industrial zone, with roads clogged by trucks carrying heavy equipment and steel pipes for drilling.

“We learned that extraction would require ‘enhanced recovery’ methods, including fracking,” Lerman says. “It’s a stimulation technique. Now you can get oil you couldn’t get before. It’s like leaving pennies or, in this case, silver dollars, in the couch.”

Where the cattle roam

Kathy Spencer’s family raises cattle on a ranch in Paicines, a rural community in the Gavilan Mountains in San Benito County, 6 miles south of Pinnacles National Park on the foraging path of the condor.

An osprey rests at the Paicines Reservoir. Photo: William McCarey.

An osprey rests at the Paicines Reservoir. Photo: William McCarey.

“The land has been in the family since 1880,” says Spencer, who sees wild turkeys and feral pigs in the golden grass, oaks and black chamise brush that surround her family’s three ranches.

Spencer used to see condors drinking from cattle troughs and scavenging for carrion on her family’s land.

“But now they feed them at Pinnacles,” she says.

Spencer has been tracking proposals to construct test wells that use “cyclic steam,” or “huff and puff” methodology–steam is periodically injected into wells to heat up and help oil flow –just one mile from one of her family’s three cattle ranches in Paicenes on a neighbor’s property.

“Some people are thinking that [oil exploration] will save our culture,” Spencer says. “We’re not necessarily against people getting money, we just want them to do so it will be a safe environment. Water is really precious to us in this arid part of the country.”

She also worries that oil development will increase truck traffic on Highway 25 towards King City or Hollister.

“It’s a twisty two-lane road,” Spencer said, noting that the road currently sees trucks full of grapes and vegetables. “They beat up the road to pieces.”

Paicines Reservoir. Photo: Rene Rodriquez/Flickr.
Paicines Reservoir. Photo: Rene Rodriquez/Flickr.
Almaden Vineyards in Paicines. Photo: Michael Dubois.
Almaden Vineyards in Paicines. Photo: Michael Dubois.
An osprey rests at the Paicines Reservoir. Photo: William McCarey.
An osprey rests at the Paicines Reservoir. Photo: William McCarey.
Vineyards in Paicines, California. Photo: William McCarey
Vineyards in Paicines, California. Photo: William McCarey
Ranching in Lockwood's golden hills. Photo: Sarah Phelan.
Ranching in Lockwood's golden hills. Photo: Sarah Phelan.
Thumper trucks use vibrating weighted plates to send sound waves deep underground to locate oil and gas deposits. Photo: Polly Goldman.
Thumper trucks use vibrating weighted plates to send sound waves deep underground to locate oil and gas deposits. Photo: Polly Goldman.
Rolling hills that turn green in winter, golden in summer, surround Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.
Rolling hills that turn green in winter, golden in summer, surround Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.
A dilapidated barn punctuates the hills around Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.
A dilapidated barn punctuates the hills around Aromas. Photo: Rob Ryan.
Thumper trucks roll down Highway 129, north of Aromas, during a seismological survey in 2012. Photo: Polly Goldman.
Thumper trucks roll down Highway 129, north of Aromas, during a seismological survey in 2012. Photo: Polly Goldman.

Preview of our next installment: Fox, rat, lizard.

As farmers and ranchers worry that extreme energy extraction could compromise open working landscapes that are essential to rural traditions, economic stability and food production, environmentalists fret about the impacts of unfettered fracking on a long list of species of concern.

Read our first story in Bay Nature’s fracking series: In condor country comes a California oil boom.

 Sarah Phelan is a contributor to Bay Nature and is leading our coverage on Extreme Energy in the Monterey Shale.

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beachmama on August 6th, 2013 at 12:49 pm

This isn’t just a farmers issue . . . fracking effects everyone of us. I hope with all of the knowledge and the press about the devastation that fracking has caused in other parts of the country that people in California will make wiser choices. No amount of money is worth destroying your land, your health, your future and the future of the planet. Say “NO” to greed, say “NO” to fracking.

Darryn on August 6th, 2013 at 8:42 pm

beachmama, The effects of fracing(correct spelling) as you state are non sense. Land my family’s trust owns has been fraced sense the 1970’s. This land has been watching by every enviro group in Calif you can think of, and has not found one instance of contamination. The devastation you speak of is non-existant. If you choose to be anti-intellectual and use propaganda films like “Gasland” or others as your basis for your belief (films that are easily exposed) Fine. Live in the dark! Be dogmatic! But, when you behave in a manner that we call out conservatives for all the time, you just embarrass yourself as being an extremist. The truth is…you have zero idea how fracing works, what different types of fracing are used, or even basic understanding of the industry. Your statement is standard demagoguery put out by the uninformed who would rather use emotion than science.

Now, let’s tell the truth. Fracing is going to set back renewable’s decades. I my self recognize this fact and it concerns me. The reality is renewable’s are our future. But, I’m not willing to sacrifice younger Americans with the magnitude of expense, and the horrific burdens financially that developing renewable’s is now costing. They have the same right to the “American Dream” as people like ourselves who can afford to live along the Calif coast as we do. The reality is: The enviromental lobby wants to stop fracing as to not allow renewable tech to slow down, and the usual “the end justifies the means” philosophy is now in full force. Forget science, make it emotional!

Our trust has proposed a tax directly on production to be used exclusively for renewable technology, so when it truly becomes viable and inexpensive, not only will younger generations benefit, but the world’s population will also benefit. Of course, Calif wants to tax it to to pay down it’s debt and fund future entitlement programs. What stupidity!

Btw: Our trust funds many charities with the receipts from production, including the Condor refuse adjacent to our property. The trust also funds a variety animal shelters including “Best Friends” animal preserve.

Please stop being so dogmatic, and do some research before you make a decision about fracing. Also, be honest with yourself. This “end justifies the means” gets all of us no where.
Other Americans deserve the same opportunities we’ve been given, and if you can afford to live anywhere along the coast of California you’ve received plenty of opportunities.

Curious: Why are Californians who vote for a philosophy so cowardly to pay for it? When the state has a budget crisis, Why doesn’t the Democratic party take the debt and divide it by how many voters voted for the party and have each one write out a check to pay for it? I never understood this. “PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH(VOTE) IT!!

John on August 7th, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Darryn appears to have a few good ideas even if he can’t resist the temptation to call those with other opinions ,stupid. I wont do that but I will say just because vertical fracking ( really is the k that important?) has not damaged your property, that does not mean its being done safy everywhere. There many documented problems beyond those in Gasland and to continually deny them and the greater risks of horizontal fracking raises questions of your own veracity. The latest being the confirmed dumping of chemicaly laced fracking fluid in the Santa Barbara channel . Our group Citizens For Responsible Oil & Gas ( cfrog.org) says study these claims scientifically, regulate test and monitor. The time of blind trust is passed. And BTW an oil tax to help us move faster toward renewables is a smart idea.

jan on August 7th, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Sorry, Darryn, the technology for horizontal hydraulic fracturing was only invented in the early 2000s. In the 1970s, they did not have the capability to blast 2-8 million gallons of water, 40,000 gallons of toxic chemicals and vast quantities of sand down 8-10,000 feet and horizontally up to 2 miles–at 6-8,000 p.s.i. A chipping gun chips concrete at 2,500 p.s.i. Don’t buy into the oil industry’s Big Lie. Fracking will destroy the land, the water, and trigger earthquakes as it has all over the country (1,000 earthquakes in a 7 mo. period in ARK). In Windsor Hills (LA Cnty) residents who live downwind of the Inglewood oil field are sick with blood and brain cancers (exposure to benzene), respiratory diseases and neurological damage from exposure to hydrogen sulfide (mimics Alzheimers). The process also releases large quantities of methane–a new study out this month says 6-20% of the methane they obtain from fracking is released into the atmosphere. On a 20 yr. scale, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The damage they are doing for 10-20 years of production (not 100 yrs.–another lie) is an outrageous betrayal of the public trust. Politicians have been purchased. Wake up, Californians! Fracking must be halted.

mildmannered on August 9th, 2013 at 7:29 pm

I live in the most fracked city in the most fracked county in Colorado.
Just today our newspaper reported a neighborhood already fracked and due for more has lost its wildlife in the two years fracking has happened there. We could talk statistics on leaks and methane emissions ad infinitum, but the loss of wildlife in one neighborhood was stunning and horrifying to me. The canary in the coalmine.
Neighboring cities have proposed moratoriums on fracking because they don’t want to be like my city. Take heed, California.

Darryn on August 9th, 2013 at 8:59 pm

John, All property is watched closely. The fact that your ave citizen just recently has heard the term “fracing” doesn’t mean enviromental org’s weren’t not only familiar with it, but watching and studying the issue. As I stated to a representative of Forrest watch, Any concern you have is my concern. Show us any evidence of contamination directly affiliated with production, ANY!! The EPA yet has one documented case in 40 years. Go to their website and link anything that the EPA has proven contamination with production. it doesn’t exist

Regarding the “dumping of chemicals”. That is a seperate issue. Any intentional dumping of chemicals of any type should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

What documented issues? I’m not looking for “documented issues” by org’s with an agenda.
Show me EPA documented issues that have been verified. The EPA routinely discounts claims made, including those in Gasland. Out trust is completely open to any concerns and will stop production if any org can produce documentation that is verified by the EPA regarding contamination at the well sites.

It is the position of the trust to regulate, monitor and verify.

Darryn on August 9th, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Jan, I’m sorry, but yes they did. Our wells have been fraced sense the mid 1970’s with this technology after they started to go dry from the original production back in the 1930’s. There is no difference in HORIZONTAL/VERTICAL drilling. In California, the Monterey Shale formation has areas where the bedrock ( the Cap) was to dense to drill vertically. The technology did not exist to move the drills sideways. Obviously, because they knew there was oil there, the R&D investment was made that led to the technology becoming available about 15 years ago. Every few years like your computer, the tech evolves and gets better. This now allows the wells to go deeper and horizontal. So the technology has been around, it just improves like anything else going back to the 1970’s.

The drilling in California is called “message” fracing. It uses a fraction of the Psi and 10% of the water used in the Dakota’s.

Toxic chemicals. Wow, that’s extreme. Where’s the prove of that? Fracing is 99.7% water, salt and sand.

When you said “earthquakes”, what nonsense. There is not one documented case by any org of this. There is some evidence that the pumping of water underground “MAY” have been attributed to some earthquakes in the midwest. California has been fracing for more than 40 years, show me the evidence that it has caused one, just one earthquake. Produce the link documented by either the state of California or the federal Government.

Your kidding right? Methane!!!! methane is naturally produced by our planet Jan, and at a rate that any human contribution is a fraction of what occurs naturally. Talk about an example of crying wolf.

Politicians are all bought. That sounds like Rush Limbaugh and the far right. In fact that’s the real issue here. Extremism. When I see your extremist left wing comments, I realize your the same as the people on the far right. As a liberal, I’m sick to death of the extremist on both sides. On this issue, like the far right on the Gay marriage issue, get in the game and get reasonable or you’re going to get left out in the cold. Fracing is not going anywhere. There is not any legislation being considered anywhere that will “BAN” fracing. All the legislation currently being considered is to monitor, regulate, and verify. Fracing IS your near future and will be the bridge to renewable’s, so you can get informed, get honest (NO AGENDA) and add your opinion to the debate about energy policy the next two decades. Anything other than that will get your opinion marginalized and left on the side lines as the rest of the country moves forward.

sam on September 6th, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Darryn’s on frack-crack – there’s an abundance of evidence that fracking permanently alters the hydrology and geology of the lands where it is introduced, and that the EPA has systematically blocked independent research into the matter. Moreover, thanks to intensive lobbying from the oil industry, gas and oil companies are exempt from the clean air and water acts and so entitled to pollute as they will. The fight against hydraulic fracturing isn’t some fringe left wing fad – it’s a fight to maintain the American Way of life – the right to live on your land with clean air and water and not have it snatched from you or bought out by greedy and politically connected oil concerns, bureaucrats and lobbyists. Fracking is downright un-American – in fact I’d go so far as to state that it represents the sovietization of this country – in that the government and third parties can lay claim to your land and resources under the abstract notion that it will benefit the greater good – when in fact it only lines the already bloated pockets of the oil industry. FRACKING IS COMMUNISM WRIT LARGE. Concerned citizens would also be wise to read up on one of the more famous cases in PA, the Hollowich Case, where Range Resources tried to foist a gag order on two children ages 7 and 10 after their parents settled a long standing dispute over the contamination of the water on their land. The judge in that case Paul Pozonsky later fled his jurisdiction rather than face scrutiny over such a draconian gag order and is now being prosecuted in a separate case for poor ethics. When the water from your well can be set aflame, you know that it’ll never be the same…

sam on September 7th, 2013 at 10:08 am

i strongly disagree with the above comment, which seems to imply that opposition to fracking is some kind of far left wing agenda – this simply isn’t the case. most of the voices that oppose the wholesale exploitation of shale reserves come from rural farmers and land owners displaced by mining operations. they’re about as american as it gets, so its disingenuous to imply otherwise. and yes, the fracking technology of the 21st century is vastly different from that of the 20th. in the 70’s the technology wasn’t nearly as invasive or toxic. and on the matter of toxicity – as far as what exactly is in fracking fluids – independent tests completely contradict the industry claim that it’s a harmless mixture of mostly water and salts. plus, on top of being exempted from such basic environmental regulations as the clean air and water acts, these gas and oil companies also can claim that the chemicals in the fracking fluids they use are ‘proprietary information’ and so can make another loophole in full disclosure. anyone reading would be wise to research how all of this has played out in rural communities in Colorado and Pennsylvania, where there has even been evidence that the EPA actually suppressed evidence that would implicate hydraulic fracturing in the contamination of aquifers. then there’s the issue of gag orders. when displaced families settle out of court with these oil companies, there’s often a gag order attached, so that – in keeping with industry practice – the cloud of opacity surrounding the process remains intact. so much to say that it’s important to look at how evidence is presented rather than take any politician or industry exec’s word at face value. when these companies are currently exempt from long standing rudimentary and basic environmental protections like the clean air and water acts – i would say the jury’s very much out as to whether the shale bonanza is our gateway to renewables and if it’s really in the best interest of the country.

sam on September 7th, 2013 at 10:12 am

the comment before last ( from the 6th) that i posted was totally tongue in cheek – i replied again today as i was convinced it had been deleted : )

but i stand by all my bold internet chat-room warrior commentary

Dan Kerbs on December 28th, 2013 at 11:02 pm

These people just want to put a halt to the extraction of any oil of any kind and in any fashion. No use arguing with them, it is just a waist of time, they have an agenda they are following and are not interested in facts or reason, nor do they care that their positions are costing middle class families dearly in the form of higher energy costs. All that most of them are interested in is throwing up road blocks in the the path of what they see as human progress.

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