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Are We Trading Our Health For Oil in New, Fracking-Induced California Gold Rush? [With Slideshow]

When it comes to the health impacts of fracking and drilling in California, there are more questions than answers.

Boilers in an oilfield along the Petroleum Highway in California. (Tara Lohan)
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan


Editor's Note: This article was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships , a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communcation & Journalism. View the slideshow at the end.

Beneath the farms, orchards and vineyards of Central and Southern California lies a prehistoric soup worth a fortune. The mineral-rich Monterey and Santos shale formations stretching 1,750 square miles across the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles Basin hold a watery mixture of oil and gas – but it’s the oil that may trigger another gold rush. That is, if companies can figure out a profitable way to tap it.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the contiguous 48 states hold an estimated 23.9 billion barrels of recoverable oil, of which an astounding 15 billion barrels are in the Monterey/Santos formations. California has been plumbed for oil extraction and production for 150 years, but getting to the Monterey’s mother lode is no easy task.

“Producing Monterey Shale oil could make panning for gold look easy,” wrote David Brown in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ publication The Explorer. The formation is fractured and faulted. But that’s not all. The shale is, on average, almost 1,900 feet thick and 11,200 feet deep. This makes accessing the oil tricky, and conventional methods won’t suffice.

Increasingly, companies are turning to new technologies. In California they’ve tried using water and steam flooding, gravel packing, and acidization (injecting hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid) to coax the oil to the surface. And then there is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where a mixture of chemicals, water and sand are forced at high pressure underground vertically, and sometimes horizontally as well.

It has only been in recent years that high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal fracking have become common in oil and gasfields. On the East coast, companies are primarily fracking for gas, but in California it’s the oil they’re after. (Gas is a byproduct that is typically burned off.)

“What is new, and potentially alarming, are projections of dramatically increased fracking activity in California brought on by the availability of new techniques,” wrote Michael Kiparsky and Jayni Foley Hein in a report, “Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in California: A Wastewater and Water Quality Perspective,” from the University of California-Berkeley School of Law's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

“Such developments have outstripped the ability of responsible agencies to effectively oversee fracking activity,” the report states. “This topic is important in part because fracking has long-term implications: once fracking has been conducted, its effects may be impossible to reverse.”

Fracking has led to an oil rush in states like North Dakota and Texas and a gas rush on the East Coast in the Marcellus Shale, but fracking and increased drilling activity have come with reports of pollution to air and water, as well as risks to public and environmental health. And that has many in California concerned.

Is the state about to embark on a new gold rush, and if so, at what cost? The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) permitted drilling in 3,676 wells last year, but the agency doesn’t require any special permits for fracking. In fact, finding out how many wells have been fracked and where can be difficult, because the reporting isn’t required – although companies can voluntarily offer the information at FracFocus.

When it comes to the health impacts of fracking and drilling in California, there are more questions than answers.

Change in the Air

Tom Frantz knows the wide, flat streets of Shafter, California well. A retired math teacher, Frantz grew up in the small agricultural community near the south end of the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County. Almond trees, the family business for four generations and counting, surround his home.

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