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

Research suggests that high-volume hydraulic fracturing could contribute to local air pollution and global climate change. Less often discussed are the implications—well pads, pipelines, access roads, 24-hour lighting, truck traffic—of having a long-term industrial infrastructure across the California countryside. Some of the Monterey Shale lies beneath places like the San Joaquin Valley’s Kern County, which is in many parts already heavily industrialized. Other areas, like the San Antonio Valley, remain pastoral.

“The specter of Kern County–type oil development extended to other parts of the state is, to me, really quite frightening,” Kiparsky says. “You would have vegetation removed. You’d have soil exposed. You’d have plants and animals displaced. You’d have disturbance of wildlife behavior. You’d have migration corridors interrupted. You could have sediment runoff that could degrade water quality in nearby streams, impacting fish and plant life. The ecological implications are potentially severe.” None of this is certain, he notes, because of the shortage of research.

One day Paula Getzelman and I drove 6 miles beyond Lockwood to the Williams Hill Recreation Area, which is owned by the federal government and operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Silvery digger pines with their enormous cones lined the steeply banked dirt road as we climbed in her SUV. Drought-tolerant chaparral plants hugged the ground. Quail darted in front of us, and long views unfolded in all directions, with hills the color of wheat.

When BLM auctioned off 20,000 acres of mineral leases in 2011 and 2012, many of the parcels surrounded Williams Hill. The agency didn’t believe much drilling would take place there, so it performed only cursory environmental assessments. “We haven’t seen a big rush into this area,” says Gabriel Garcia, a BLM field office manager who has also worked as an environmental protection specialist for the agency.

Environmentalists and local officials took a less sanguine view. They feared that drilling on the land leased by BLM not only might pollute the water and air, but also could harm endangered species like the California condor, which was brought back from the edge of extinction and now numbers over 200 in the wild.

Since 2011, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club have filed two lawsuits to block the BLM leases. In March 2013, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal ruled that the first set of lease sales violated federal law. “The potential risk for contamination from fracking, while unknown, is not so remote or speculative to be completely ignored,” he wrote. BLM is now in settlement talks with the plaintiffs and has promised a fuller environmental review before moving forward.

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