By Hannah Brandt
On July 19, 2016, community members gathered at Community United Church of Christ to see the unveiling of Crude Beyond Belief, the film made of the Fracking Tour of Kern County on November 14, 2015, led by Clearing the Air columnist Tom Frantz. It was filmed by Kyle Lowe from Community Media Access Collaborative of Fresno and Clovis (CMAC). Catherine Fowler from Fresnans Against Fracking wrote the primer for the narration that is used. The national branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was awarded a $1500 grant to make the film, with contributions from the Tehipite chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of the coordination to make the film was spearheaded by Jean Hays who facilitated the viewing.
The beginning of the film lays out some stark statistics. California is the third largest oil producer in the U.S. and 75% of that is in Kern County. While understandably most people associate central California with agriculture, the oil industry controls the economy in Kern County. Two-thirds of Kern County residents, including farmers, live within a mile of an oil or natural gas well. “No one had challenged the oil industry in Kern County until a group of local farmers who experienced crop loss, tainted groundwater, dried up wells, and air pollution.”
Tom Frantz took the thirty or so tour participants to various parts of Kern County where fracking and other hazardous practices by oil companies are rampant, including Bakersfield, Wasco, and Shafter. Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield is the largest oil field in Kern County. According to Frantz, the Kern River is the lifeblood of the area as it provides most of the drinking water. He explained that most fracking in California isn’t extracted through deep pressure injection the way it is in the Eastern U.S. It is mostly done through flood steam injection. 100 billion gallons of steam are injected every year to retrieve oil with previously fresh water from the Sierra, some flowing from as far away as Mt. Whitney.
Boilers all over Kern County burn millions of gallons of water to make oil come out of the ground. Much of the salty water contaminated with chemicals like boron and toluene is sent to farmers desperate for water during this drought. It is not filtered before farmers use it to water their crops and feed livestock. Looking out over the bluffs is a haze as thick as any urban smog. Ammonium nitrate is a fine particulate, resulting from the steam process, fills the air Kern County residents breathe, going into people’s bloodstream, damaging the heart, lungs, and brain.
According to Frantz, the waste water run-off from the oil field is pumped up the hill to fill ponding basins and percolate into the ground. That which does not seep into the ground is sprayed on the hillside using sprinklers to drain into ponds further down. None of the plants that grow on these hillsides are native any longer, only those that are extremely salt resistant can survive. Cattle graze there. All the water eventually drains down into the Kern River and therefore into people’s taps. Every barrel of oil that is produced contaminates nine barrels of water that would have been clean drinking water.
The Valley Water Management Company (VWMC) is classified as a 501 C-4 non-profit that collects and disposes of wastewater for 27 oil companies in Kern County. It has 255 active pits in the county for wastewater disposal. Although per the IRS “a 501 C-4 organization must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare,” VWMC reported three million dollars in annual revenue in 2014 and $13 million in assets.
These practices were approved fifty years ago and until recently had not been reassessed. In August of 2015, the Regional Water Board declared this process dangerous to the water supply and ordered the Valley Water Management Company to cease immediately. Unbeknownst to the governor appointed staff, the water board met privately with oil companies and arrived at a compromise that allowed their practices to continue until January 2018. Oil companies have blackmailed local businesses threatening to create mass boycotts of those who do not join their bodies to prevent anyone who might fight back or expose their health violations.
In Kern County, many property holders have rights from the surface to one foot below. Those rights are secondary to those with mineral rights, however. “On Nov 9, 2015, the Kern County Planning and Development Department approved a 25-year zoning change amendment for oil and gas well permits, included a county-wide blanket environmental impact report and denied surface owners their right to a public hearing. $7.8-10 million spent by three non-profit trade organization lobbies to fast track the permit process in Kern County.”
The Split Estate Shafter Oil Field is one-eighth of a mile from Sequoia Elementary School. Deep well fracking is done there. If you have ever driven on the Grapevine and wondered what the 30-foot-tall flames are, that is 1-2 million tons of gas burning by oil companies. Frantz explained that just one such flare can raise the ozone level of the surrounding area by 2%. He pointed to a row of young almond trees near the well less than a year old. They have been shriveled by being so close to the oil extraction process.
Frantz lives in the area and has friends who farm nearby. “A few farmers complained about the oil companies destroying their land over the course of three years. The oil companies paid them off and burned their homes to the ground.” They gave them enough money to buy new homes but farmworkers who rent properties on the land are still there. Water is allocated to farmers from the Friant Dam, they pump extra groundwater, which they sell to the oil companies. In the short term, Frantz says, they make money, but in the long term, the land is destroyed.
The situation is not severe but not hopeless. As more people learn about the problem and get the word out, the more pressure can be applied to oil companies to stop these practices and environmental regulatory agencies to enact and enforce laws. Testing of crops grown with so-called “blended water,” which is part fracking wastewater, is now being conducted. Protests throughout the state are calling attention to these violations of the Clean Air Act and dangers to our food and water supply.
As one participant who worked in the oil industry for thirty years said, “people power” is vital. If we each tell 10 people about the dangers of fracking, it can make a difference. To order a copy of Crude Beyond Belief go to the WILPF-Fresno Branch Facebook page.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance