By Ron Martin
Tom Frantz, Kern County farmer-activist, led about 25 members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Fresnans against Fracking on a tour of sites of polluting activity by oil companies in Kern County including the Kern River Oil Field, the Valley Water wastewater disposal site, a waste-steam holding pond and a fracked oil field. Frantz explained that the oil companies have political control of Kern County, its board of supervisors, media, and businesses, and the state water and oil regulatory agencies. But with the increasing statewide concern about fracking, many other aspects of oil drilling are being examined.
The 100-year-old Kern River oil field in Bakersfield is viewable from a roadside park along Panorama Boulevard. Drilling there began in the late 19th century, rose to its greatest production in the 1950s, and still produces oil today with the assistance of steam injection. The oil field is dotted with close-set pump jacks with steam plants and wastewater holding tanks nearby. The oil field and the surrounding area is covered by a whitish haze of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrous oxides and sulfurous compounds small enough that when breathed in enter bloodstreams then hearts and brains. As a living area, the region is especially harmful to the young and the old.
The oil from the wells is diluted and pushed out by steam, made from Kern River water heated with methane gas from the oil field. The steam water must be fresh since reused water contains chemicals that clog and corrode pipes. When the steam condenses, the water contains dissolved chemicals from deep underground, from the wells at depths of more than 10,000 feet, and from the chemicals injected into the wells to loosen the oil for flowing out and to lubricate and protect pipes.
Some of the contaminated steam water is re-injected into the earth into old, unused oil wells, pumping it at least 8,000 feet down, below the water level, which is around 2,000 feet. Some of the water is piped to other areas for surface disposal. Proper treatment of the water for reuse would be reverse-osmosis after filtering, or solar distillation, which would also involve disposal of the removed toxic solids. These methods would be more expensive than simply spreading it over soil, a current destination of it.
Besides the condensed steam, additional water comes up with the oil, called produced water. Much of it is piped to acreage in an isolated rural area maintained by a nonprofit company named Valley Water, supported by both large and small oil drillers. The site has two dozen unlined ponds holding the contaminated water. Some of the water evaporates along with its VOCs, some seeps into the soil, leaving the contaminants in the porous soil, and some runs downhill through pipes leading to sprinklers that spray the water over the hills below the ponds.
The plan is for the water and its contaminants to be spread over the property, dispersing and diluting it. The plants growing on the hillsides are nonnative, salt-tolerant plants, unlike the grass on nearby hills, as produced water from oil wells is salty to varying extents.
The contaminants on the soil of the Valley Water site wash off the hillsides during heavy rain, as heavy as an inch in a day, as runoff into Cottonwood Creek then into the Kern River, Bakersfield’s drinking water supply. The extent of the contaminants added to fresh river water has not been studied, nor has the destinations of the sprayed and soaked contaminants. The existence of the Valley Water dispersal site had not been widely known until recently, after statewide concern about the dangers of fracking led to the examination of all aspects of the effects of oil drilling.
Another destination of steam condensation and produced water is a pool at another rural site, guarded by security who inform anyone driving to it that they are on private property. The concrete-lined pond floats booms that are drawn across it to skim off floating oil, what is left after the water is drained through walnut shells to remove oil. This is the only treatment the water receives before being sent to farms for irrigation. The farmers pay only the delivery costs, which is a good deal in drought times, but the water is salty, and thus will degrade the soil on farms that use it, although not enough to kill that season’s crops. Some of the contaminants probably enter the grapes and oranges from the water, but neither the extent nor the types of contaminants have been studied; the disposal permits issued by the State Water Board have not required it, and it is of minimal interest to those involved.
Most of the oil wells in Kern County are vertically drilled then use cyclic steam and acidization stimulation to extract the oil. In an area north of Wasco, however, all the new wells drilled in the last 10–15 years use horizontal drilling and fracking into the oil-bearing layer of shale deep below. The area is dotted with extra-large pump jacks, including a new type, vertical, with huge belts rolling back and forth over the top of 80-foot towers pulling oil out of the ground. Tall, white towers are in place to pull pipe out of 10,000-foot-deep wells that did not produce oil. Orange flames flare at the top of pipes extending 100 feet high, burning off natural gasses, mainly methane. Unburned methane also leaks off of the wells. Methane is 85 times more warming of our globe than carbon dioxide.
The drilling in this field is experimental, with many dry holes drilled. Drilling a well takes about three months and uses a million gallons of water. The horizontal drilling uses curved drills, with 2,000-foot radii. Then horizontal drills enter the narrow, hard shale layer. After this, the well is ready for fracking, a one-day process using more hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, contaminated in the process, forced in by pumps operating at 150,000 psi.
The farmers north of Wasco are only surface owners, not owning the mineral rights of their lands. They do not like the oil wells on their property due to loss of crop area, noise and haze of VOCs, but they have little say in oil companies’ plans to drill and frack below their land because the farms are “dual estates,” and the farmers are “surface owners,” owning the land down one foot.
The “mineral rights” owned by oil companies gives them the right to drill wells at any time anywhere on the land, although if they damage surface features, including buildings and the value of one year’s crops, surface owners are to be compensated. Yet pump jacks might remain on the land for decades, awaiting future treating and drilling. The rates of compensation for damage are negotiated owner by owner, with little legal recourse. Two farmers complained about damage to their homes for years, then oil companies bought them out by buying the houses. The houses were donated to the fire department, which burned them to the ground as training.
Frantz hopes to continue pointing out the toxic facts of oil drilling taking place in the San Joaquin Valley since the more widely and fully this filthy business is known, the sooner the people of California will bring it to an end.
Ron Martin is part of Homeless Advocates, a group informing the Fresno City Council about options for sheltering our homeless population. He leads a small-group Bible study at Fresno’s First Baptist Church. He leads Fresnans against Fracking and is on the Executive Committee of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club. Ron works at the Fresno County Library’s Downtown Branch after previously working at the Woodward Park branch and driving the bookmobile for six years.