The Future of Fracking in California

Billions of barrels of oil lie in the Monterey Shale. The windfall from tapping into that deeply buried cache could be mind-blowing – so could the damage.
Barry Yeoman

As Paula Getzelman and I stroll among her Syrah and Grenache vines, she points out how the freestanding plants were “head-trained,” or cultivated to look like goblets. Head-training can produce less fruit per acre than growing the plants on horizontal trellises, but that’s okay with her. “It allows the vine to give its all to a smaller number of grapes,” she says.

Paula’s Tre Gatti Vineyards, a 5-acre boutique operation in California’s San Antonio Valley that she runs with her husband, Paul, has provided the couple with more than just an income and a palate-pleasing product. It has given them an exit from their fast-paced city lives. She had worked in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, he in food sales. At one point she was traveling four days a week for her job. “What we were doing was for the money,” she says, “not for the soul.” In 2001, craving a change, she moved back to Lockwood, the agricultural town in southern Monterey County where the couple had started their married life three decades earlier. Paul followed in 2003, and that year they planted their vines.

Coaxing grapes from the ground is dicey business. There are tiny leafhoppers that drain chlorophyll from the plants. There are late-summer days when an imprecise forklift movement can overturn a half-ton of grapes onto the dirt road. But these days Paula worries about another industry that wants to coax its own product from deeper beneath the soil.

The San Antonio Valley is part of the Monterey Shale, a 1,750-square-mile patchwork of rock that the oil industry calls a potential energy bonanza. A 2011 U.S. government study estimated that the recoverable oil inside the shale far outstrips the reserves fueling the current booms in North Dakota and Texas.

That oil is not easily obtained, though. Trapped inside the rock, it needs to be extracted by one of several modern technologies. The best known is hydraulic fracturing, nicknamed “fracking,” which entails drilling deep beneath the earth’s surface and horizontally across the rock, then pumping water, chemicals, and sand underground to fracture the shale and free up the fuel. Fracking has unlocked stubborn oil and natural gas reserves elsewhere, creating jobs and fostering hopes for an energy-independent future. A recent study by the International Energy Agency said the technology is driving down U.S. gas and electricity prices, and it predicted that the United States will become the world’s largest oil producer around 2020 and that North America will be a net oil exporter by 2030.

But fracking and related activities have also been linked to water and air pollution, health problems ranging from asthma to low birth-weight babies, wildlife habitat disruption, and boomtown ills such as homelessness and crime. Environmental activists warn that these problems could plague California if the Monterey Shale is exploited.

Paula, 71, is no activist. But she worries, in her measured way, that drilling the shale without a better understanding of the risks could jeopardize the San Antonio Valley’s most valuable resource. “What we have in that vineyard is dependent on water,” she says. “If our water is decimated, both in quality and quantity, we pretty much have no fallback position. Once the water is gone, you can’t reclaim it.”

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