Juan Flores stands in the community garden at Sequoia Elementary School in Shafter, California, and points to one, two, three oil wells within view of the school. The closest well stands the length of a couple of football fields from the edge of the garden, and all day its pump slides up and down sucking crude oil from the earth.
“There are probably a hundred wells within a mile radius of this school,” says Flores, an environmental organizer and the son of local farmworkers. “And many of them have been fracked.” The tall well at the edge of school property is the nearest example.
Before Flores can say more, a man in a white truck comes by and tells us that the farmer next door is about to spray pesticides on his almond grove. The wind is blowing in the direction of the garden and the school. It’s time to leave.
This is life in Kern County, one of the most productive and poisoned places in California. Located at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, Kern County boasts a $6.7-billion farm economy that churns out huge quantities of almonds, grapes and other foodstuffs each year. It’s a place where farmworkers fill the fields and crop dusters zip across the sky. About 75 percent of in-state oil production also takes place here, according to the local Chamber of Commerce. Wells, pumps, storage tanks and oil workers in big white trucks seem to be around every bend.
Air pollution, meanwhile, is out of control. The county seat, Bakersfield, consistently ranks near the top of the American Lung Association’s list of cities with terrible air quality. One in 10 adults in the county suffer from active cases of asthma, according to state data. Water resources are also damaged. Kern River, for instance, which runs through much of the county, is as dry as parchment paper and filled with weeds.
Flores is concerned about air quality, about drought, about the poverty that haunts many of the region’s Latino farmworkers. But at the moment, of all these maladies, his focus is on hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as fracking. The extraction technique, Flores says, is being used all over Kern County and could poison precious water supplies, make people sick, kill crops and destroy jobs. As a result, he and his coworkers at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, an environmental justice group based in Kern County, have become leaders in California’s growing anti-fracking movement. Along with groups like 350.org and Food & Water Watch, they want Governor Jerry Brown of California to follow New York’s example and ban the practice altogether. So far Brown, who considers himself a leader in the fight against climate change, has not budged.
A Long History
Fracking for oil has been ongoing in California for decades. It involves injecting chemicals, water and sand into oil wells at high speeds in order to create fractures in the rock below and thereby increase oil production. About one fifth of California’s oil production over the last decade came from fracked wells. Oil operators in the state installed 125 to 175 fracked wells every month during the same period, according to a recent study required by the 2013 law that regulates fracking here.
This year has been bad for frackers on the other side of the Atlantic. In late January, Scotland placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional methods of oil and gas extraction. Wales followed in the footsteps of its northern compatriots in early February when the National Assembly there voted to prohibit fracking until the practice is proven safe. Meanwhile, in North America, a moratorium in the Canadian province of New Brunswick is almost three months old and going strong.
In the United States, however, progress has been slow. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s historic decision to ban the practice, anti-fracking activist endured setbacks in the Midwest and elsewhere. On February 18, for instance, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 vote that the state had exclusive authority over the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, and that cities and counties cannot ban the practice in their jurisdictions. Nearly a month earlier, a U.S. district court struck down a fracking ban in Mora County, New Mexico. It’s the first time a federal court has ruled on local regulation of oil and gas development and it doesn’t bode well.
While fracking battles were unfolding across the globe, Big Oil got caught breaking rules in California. In late February, water officials in Kern County, California — the state’s major oil producing region — discovered more than 300 illegal wastewater pits where oil producers have been dumping dirty, chemical-laced water without permits or permission. The regional water quality control board has promised to crack down on the illicit activity.
As the number of wells has grown, concern over the cocktail of chemicals involved in the fracking process has kept pace. Such chemicals include hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide, ammonium chloride, peroxydisulfates and a variety of petroleum distillates.
“Fracking has evolved during the years,” says Flores. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s they used this technique, but they were not putting all of these chemicals into the ground then. We worry the chemicals will find their way back to the aquifers.” California has to protect its water resources, he says, especially during this historic drought.
His concerns carry weight. Last July a group called the Concerned Health Professionals of New York published a report on the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. The report included a list of incidents in which fracking had caused water and air pollution in states across the country, including California, and concluded that “drinking water is at risk from drilling and fracking activities and associated waste disposal practices.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo relied on the published compendium’s findings when he decided to ban fracking in the state in December.
Indeed, New York’s leadership on the issue of hydraulic fracturing has given a major boost to activists here. “We arm ourselves with the fact that New York had this incredible victory,” says Alexandra Nagy, an organizer with Food & Water Watch. “We are next.”
But unlike New York, where the oil and gas industry is relatively weak, California is an oil state and has been for more than a century. After Texas and North Dakota, it produces more crude than any other state in the nation: nearly 200 million barrels per year. It’s where Chevron is headquartered and where Upton Sinclair wrote his famous 1927 novel Oil!, which portrays the hysteria and corruption that marked the oil industry’s early years here. The industry’s influence remains strong. According to the Sacramento Business Journal, the Western States Petroleum Association spent nearly $9 million lobbying the state government last year, while Chevron and Phillips 66 spent $4.2 million and $1.5 million, respectively. Big Oil is big in California. It will be hard to beat.
To combat that power, anti-fracking activists have organized a diverse coalition that spans the state. That diversity was on display at the March for Real Climate Leadership on February 7, when thousands of people converged in downtown Oakland to persuade the governor to buck Big Oil and ban fracking. People across the state took buses, carpools and planes to participate in the protest. Walking through the crowd that day, you saw farmworkers from Kern County; Zen Buddhists from San Francisco; students from Santa Barbara; artists from Oakland; members of the Ohlone tribe; representatives of UNITE HERE, the UAW and AFSCME; people from Benicia, Carson City, Chico, Los Angeles, San Benito and more.
Organizers from 350.org and Food & Water Watch deemed the march a grand success. They said 8,000 people participated in what was the “largest anti-fracking demonstration in U.S. history.” The oil industry, however, was quick to attack. Dave Quast, a spokesman for Energy In Depth California, an industry-funded group, called the march “a lot of sound and fury” and noted that the Oakland Police Department estimated the crowd at only 2,000 people. The governor’s office has not commented on the demonstration.
But California’s anti-fracking activists, aware of the New York movement’s successful strategy, are not waiting on Brown to take action. They’re organizing in cities and counties across the state, hoping to ban fracking at the local level and build up the kind of pressure that could force Brown’s hand. Already, the counties of Mendocino, San Benito and Santa Cruz have banned the practice. Organizers are also pushing local prohibitions in Carson City, Chico, Los Angeles, Monterey and Oakland, and hope to win despite serious pushback from industry.
“We were bombarded by an unbelievable number of TV, radio and Internet commercials funded by the oil industry,” says Andrew Hsia-Coron, who helped spearhead the ballot initiative that successfully banned fracking in San Benito last fall. “We won because we gave people a sense that they owned their future here, that it was their choice and not the oil industry’s choice.”
One place that hasn’t seen success, at least not yet, is Kern County. Activists, organizers and concerned residents there have not tried to push for a fracking ban at the county level, where support for the industry is strong. The county budget, after all, relies heavily on oil royalties — in January Kern officials declared a fiscal emergency as a result of dropping oil prices. Instead, organizers are hoping for a statewide ban that only the governor can provide.
But it is not at all certain that Brown will give them what they want, despite his stated commitment to combating climate change and his ambitious renewable energy agenda. At a press conference the day before the Oakland anti-fracking demonstration, Brown seemed resistant to the protesters’ demands. “Whatever we don’t do here,” he said, referring to oil production, “we’re going to get from somewhere else.” And if fracking is not banned in Kern County, whether by state or local officials, then the majority of California’s fracked oil wells will remain intact and operational.
“If we are going get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, about meeting our reduction targets, we are going to have to leave the oil in the ground,” says Tom Frantz, an almond farmer in Kern County who lives within a couple of miles of multiple fracked oil wells and worries about air and water pollution. “But I’m not too optimistic.” He says that if a fracking ban is not presently attainable in Kern — and he doesn’t think one is — then he’d like to see better regulations, like a prohibition of fracking on prime farmlands and near important water sources.
Juan Flores, for his part, believes the movement will get the prohibition it seeks. “I am an organizer,” he says. “I believe in people power. So yes, I have hope.”
Flores says he’ll travel the roads around Shafter and Bakersfield, Delano and Wasco, knocking on doors and meeting with neighbors, until Kern County and California are no longer subject to Big Oil’s bad ideas.
New York's Fracking Battles Heat Up
By Patrick Robbins