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

 

Before it was renamed Lockwood in the late 19th century—after suffragist Belva Lockwood, who by some reckoning was the nation’s first female presidential candidate—the Monterey County settlement was sometimes called Hungry Flats or Poverty Flats. “Even the rabbits had to bring their lunch,” locals said.

It was hardly less isolated when Paul Getzelman’s mother, Lucile, came in the late 1920s to teach at a one-room schoolhouse in nearby Bryson Hesperia. Her arrival was big news for Lockwood’s bachelors. “The young men were buzzing around like flies,” Paula says. Lucile chose a suitor named Maurice Getzelman, and in 1929, the couple married.

In the 1930s, the two of them bought a general store in Lockwood, eventually moving it to the new paved road through town, where it sits today. It reminded Paul of a western-movie general store—“with the Levi’s in back,” he says, “hardware on one side, fresh meat, a little bit of fresh produce.” Paul, now 68, grew up attending cattle brandings and dove hunts. His elementary school graduating class had five students.

Paul and Paula married in 1972 and ran the store together. Paula, a self-described city girl, learned how to roll dice with the old-timers for coffee. The work, she learned, was unrelenting. “A rural store is a mistress,” she says. “We would get people knocking on our door at midnight wanting to know if they could get a gallon of gas.” Wanting their three boys to have the benefits—sports, culture—of a more urban life, the Getzelmans moved to Fresno in 1975.

During their absence, the San Antonio Valley began to change. The first modern vineyard was planted in 1996. The valley’s high hillsides, dry summer heat, and cool nights help nurture fruity, crisply acidic grapes. A stampede followed, Paula says, as growers converted fallow land and barley fields to vineyards.

Returning to Lockwood after a quarter-century, the Getzelmans found primal satisfaction in the cycles of vineyard life. “When we saw the first leaf come up, I cried,” Paula says. “It was like giving birth.” In 2006, at the behest of the Getzelmans and another grower, the federal government named the San Antonio Valley its own viticultural area.

Not long afterward, the first hints that oil companies might be interested in the local shale began surfacing. A well was drilled 10 miles from the Getzelmans’ farm, annoying the neighbors but not really alarming them. Oil and gas company representatives quietly began buying mineral rights near that well, though no one has approached the Getzelmans. News spread of the fracking booms in other places. The government released its 2011 Monterey Shale assessment. That year, and the next, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned mineral rights it owned in southern Monterey County. Buying the rights were Vintage Production California, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, as well as three agents that acquire and manage land for drillers: Neil Ormond, Lone Tree Energy, and West Coast Land Service.

Paula realized how little she knew about the Monterey Shale. The state did not track fracking activity. Oil companies were cagey about their plans. Studies about the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing were few. But there were reports of related water contamination in other states. As she learned more, Paula grew wary, particularly about the prospect of pumping fracking fluid—which often includes chemicals (such as benzene, 2-butoxyethanol, and toluene) that are linked to cancer or damage to the liver, bone marrow, or central nervous system—below the valley’s groundwater. “If they were to frack out here, and it were to go horribly wrong,” she says, “the consequences would be unspeakable.”

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