Does Fracking Threaten California Vineyards?

Environmental group cites oil/gas extraction's potential effects on water supply

by Jane Firstenfeld
vineyard fracking
According to residents near Los Alamos, Calif., officials granted permits for energy company Venoco to drill for oil before learning the company planned to use hydraulic fracturing techniques.
Sacramento, Calif.—Among many issues of concern to California’s vast and valuable wine industry, water ranks in the top tier. With annual precipitation fluctuating wildly from flood (2011) to famine (potentially 2012), confusing use regulations and constant, costly squabbles among users, one potential threat to California’s water has eluded attention from the wine industry.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” is a procedure used by petroleum companies to lubricate drilling for gas and oil. In common use, though mostly under the radar for decades, the procedure has made headlines across the United States in recent years. Wines & Vines began covering fracking in 2010, when New York’s Finger Lakes district confronted the issue. Until last year, there was little media coverage of fracking in California, although petroleum drillers have engaged in the practice here for almost 60 years.

Last month, the Environmental Working Group released a heavily annotated, 20-page report about California’s state policy concerning fracking. Founded in 1993, EWG is a national, nonprofit organization for the stated purpose of protecting “children, babies and infants in the womb” by replacing federal policies “with policies that invest in conservation and sustainable development.”

The report, “California Regulators: See No Fracking, Speak No Fracking” is linked here.

The report’s focus is a state agency, the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

Although DOGGR nominally regulates fracking, it seems to have no enforcement capability, as detailed in the EWG report, which states: “The amount of water used to frack a single well can range from about 100,000 (gallons) to more than 1.5 million gallons. It’s unknown how much of this is fresh water versus produced or recycled water, but it is clear that fracking has the potential to use significant amounts of California water. And during droughts, when farmers and state residents get their water cut back, the oil and gas industry often suffers from no such cutbacks.”

EWG reported that in 2011, California state Sen. Fran Pavley, who represents a district that stretches from downtown Los Angeles west to Oxnard, wrote to the supervisor of DOGGR requesting basic information about fracking in California. In its response, the division acknowledged how little it knew. The EWG quotes DOGGR’s response, in which the division reported that it:

• Was “unable to identify where and how often hydraulic fracturing occurs in the state;”
• Was “not aware of the amount of energy produced using hydraulic fracturing;”
• Had “no information” about water use;”
• Had “no data on the safety, efficacy and necessity” of fracking;
• Had “no permitting process” and “no regulations currently in place specific to hydraulic fracturing.”

Although DOGGR’s response was linked in the EWG report, EWG confirmed today that the response and all other information about fracking has been removed from the DOGGR website. 

Contamination concerns
Concerns about water use are compounded by the potential for groundwater contamination. Water used in the fracking process contains added, potentially hazardous chemicals. According to the EWG report, “Among them are 10 chemicals known under California’s Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986) to cause cancer and/or reproductive harm: 1,4 dioxane, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, acrylamide, naphthalene, dibromoacetonitrile, ethylene oxide, and thiourea.”

According to the EWG report, the state does not track or regulate the types of chemicals being used nor companies’ methods for disposal. Bill Allayaud, co-author of the report, told Wines & Vines that so far oil and gas companies have successfully argued that their formulas are protected as “trade secrets.”

Petroleum drillers, who continue to lobby against fracking regulation in California and elsewhere, contend the practice does not pollute groundwater, Allayaud said.

According to the EWG report: “Representatives of Halliburton told EWG researchers that they estimate that 50%-60% of new oil wells in Kern County—the major oil-producing county—are being hydraulically fractured. According to the 2009 annual report of the Division of Oil and Gas, 1,527 new wells were drilled that year in the county’s five most productive oil fields. From these figures, EWG estimates that, at a minimum, more than 750 California wells were fracked in 2009.”

EWG also reported, “A Kern County farmer was awarded $8.5 million in damages in 2009, after his almond trees died when he irrigated them with well water that had been tainted by nearby oil and gas operations. The contamination was traced to unlined pits where Aera Energy LLC, one of California’s largest oil and gas producers, had for decades dumped billions of gallons of wastewater that slowly leached pollutants into nearby groundwater. It’s unknown if any of this wastewater came from hydraulic fracturing.” The farmer, Fred Starrh, is now seeking $1 billion in punitive damages.

Risk to vineyards
According to WinesVinesDATA, five wineries now operate in Kern County. Other grape and wine-producing counties also are being fracked, notably Monterey (81 wineries) and Santa Barbara (188 wineries).

As Wines & Vines reported in August 2011, Steve Lyons, who grows premium winegrapes in Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County, was powerless when Denver-based Venoco Inc. fracked two oil wells on his property, because he doesn’t own the mineral rights. His experience prompted the county to enact stricter fracking regulation there, requiring oil producers to get an oil drilling production plan from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, and file a plan prior to the storage of eligible hazardous materials on a site.

Local regulatory powers are limited, though. Allayaud commented, “Santa Barbara went as far as they could under county zoning.”

Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, told Wines & Vines, “One of our concerns, irrespective of chemical use, was the use of water. We’re more concerned about millions of gallons used by fracking. We don’t have millions to give. We don’t use it as a Waterpik.”

Despite its potential import to the entire California grape and wine industry, interest in fracking has not gained much traction among regional or state organizations. When Wines & Vines contacted the California Association of Winegrape Growers to get its take, a spokesperson responded, “CAWG does not have a position on this issue. It has not surfaced as an issue for our members.”

A bill slowly making its way through the California State Assembly may awaken some interest. Introduced last year by state Rep. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, AB 591 was fast-tracked through the Assembly, then temporarily derailed by pressing budget concerns. The state senate is weighing the bill this session.

In its endorsement of the bill, EWG wrote that AB 591 “would ensure that California's citizens have access to information about fracking in our communities. AB 591 would require oil and gas companies to disclose—for the first time—when and where they are fracking, what chemicals they are using and how much scarce water their operations consume. All of this information would be published on a public website, creating one of the toughest fracking disclosure requirements in the nation.”

To read more of EWG’s research on the topic, click here.

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