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

California’s farmers and ranchers have not formed a consensus around fracking. Some, like Paula, believe that, based on current information, the risks outweigh any potential economic gain. Others are eager for the additional income from oil leases—“particularly in this time of severe drought, when they’re laying 30 percent of their land fallow,” says Diane Friend, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. Farmers there, she says, trust the steps that the oil companies are taking to protect their aquifers. And because saltwater intrusion has already forced many of them to rely on surface water for irrigation, problems underground won’t imperil their crops. “One reason they’re not afraid,” Friend says, “is that the water quality’s already bad.”

Hull, the industry official, says oil and agriculture have prospered side by side in California for more than a century. “They understand that it’s necessary to coexist, and they do so extremely well,” he says. The question is whether that peace will continue if drillers crack the Monterey code and the resulting boom demands more water. In a statewide context, the amount of water used for fracking would be small. But experts say it could create local shortages.

The Getzelmans use 7,000 gallons an acre every time they water their vineyard. Nationally, fracking requires about 1 million gallons of water annually per well; in California, which hasn’t had horizontal drilling on a mass scale yet, the water usage has been lower. But the state, which has seen its groundwater depleted by almost 20 trillion gallons since the early 1960s, could face tensions too. “Between groundwater concerns and the state’s recently declared ‘drought emergency,’ any expansion of water use for hydraulic fracturing in this region will likely spark strong public concern that could jeopardize the industry’s social license to operate,” says a report published in February by Ceres, a nonprofit group that advises business leaders on sustainability issues.

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