Can Fracking and Farming Mix in America’s Biggest Ag State?

As energy companies buy up oil rights in California, questions are raised about the safety of the nation’s food supply.
California farmland (Photo: Wendell Ward/Getty)
Mar 27, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

We all know oil and water don’t mix, but what about oil extraction and water-intensive farming? Can both take place safely in California’s Central Valley? That’s the growing question as the nation’s biggest farm state comes ever closer to embracing hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Some of the biggest oil and gas companies have been quickly buying up water and oil rights, with over 17,000 acres of oil leases on California public land auctioned off by federal land managers at the end of 2012. Eyes are on the Monterey Shale, a giant 1,750-square-mile area that runs along the western side of the state and is believed to hold as much as 15 billion barrels of crude oil.

As energy companies explore the shale, they’re hopeful. Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group representing oil and gas companies, told California NPR affiliate KQED: “If hydraulic fracturing proves to be successful here as it’s been elsewhere, it’s an extraordinarily optimistic future we’re looking at from an energy point of view.”

In terms of benefits to the state of California, a University of Southern California study funded by the Western States Petroleum Association estimates that developing the Monterey shale will add nearly three million jobs and close to $25 billion in tax revenues by 2020.

In states such as Pennsylvania, small and struggling farmers have also made quite a bit from leasing their land to energy companies, sometimes making as much as $1,000 an acre in the beginning of the natural gas boom.

However, food and farming activists have been sounding the alarm on the possible impact of fracking on the food we eat. The Monterey shale is a particular concern, because it sits below the same land where many of the state’s 81,000 farms—including big vineyards, orchards, and dairy operations—pump out a great deal of the state’s annual $43 billion worth of food.

In short, the oil and gas companies use a vast array of chemicals in the fracking process to extract oil and natural gas buried deep beneath the surface of the earth, while the rock formation or shale releases its own array of pollutants in the process. The liquid that’s left behind is often contained, but there’s increasing evidence that it’s leaking onto the landscape, and into our water-dependent food supply.

In states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Ohio, grazing animals have gotten sick and died after drinking fracking runoff and water from farm wells near fracking operations—often the main source of on-farm water. They’ve been poisoned with everything from arsenic, propane, and cobalt to uranium and radium. And the frequency of fracking-related tainted meat, dairy, and other food in the marketplace is yet to be thoroughly studied. (In her recent cover story for the Nation,Fracking Our Food Supply,” for instance, reporter Elizabeth Royte dug up far more questions than answers).

In Southern California’s Kearn County, where some fracking is already taking place, farmers are already facing some grim realities.

Fred Starrh became a well-known example when a swath of trees on his almond and pistachio farm died after being exposed to boron in groundwater that had seeped onto his property from a nearby fracking operation. He was awarded 8.5 million in a lawsuit, but has continued unsuccessfully to press for more, which he claims is necessary to clean the soil. Other farmers have reported chloride in their wells and more dying orchards.

Water is not the only problem at hand. Soil and air are also said to be vectors for fracking-related contamination. However, water is by far the most immediate concern, and that includes water availability.

The especially thirsty wine industry is on alert. Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, told the website 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.”

A recent Public Herald article points to the trend in energy companies buying up water that would traditionally go to farmers. “Agriculture water districts from Modesto to Maricopa are reportedly alarmed by the purchasing power of energy companies who are buying up as much water as they can with financial resources traditional agriculture water districts can’t match—as much as three times the rate water districts expected to pay.”

The article continues:

For California farmers, the loss of hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water from the districts means an increase in rates and fewer acre feet allotments intended for new groves of pistachios and almonds, vineyards of grapes and fields of water-intensive alfalfa, tomatoes and corn, that likely will be planted either without increases in acreage or an increase in fallowed fields this year.

According to state ag business analysts, the energy companies’ water grab will likely translate to higher food prices for consumers and increased cost to the production of bio fuels like ethanol that rely on the availability of cheap and abundant corn harvests.

There's also the matter of where the chemically saturated waste water, a bi-product of the fracking process, will end up. Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch (FWW), an advocacy organization, says waste water will only add to a critical situation in the state.

“Agricultural pollution from nitrates, pesticides, etcetera is already a big problem in the Central Valley with ground water and surface water,” says Scow. “A lot of that runoff flows back to the San Francisco Bay Delta. If we add fracking chemicals to that mix, it might make it impossible to reverse the problem.”

FWW has worked with state legislators in recent months to help draft and introduce several Democrat-sponsored bills that would put a moratorium on fracking in California much like the one that's in effect in New York state until 2015—thanks in part to a high-profile focus on food and farming. The proposed bills, along with several prominent lawsuits against the state’s Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), have combined in a statewide fight that appears to be gathering steam.

In December, the California Department of Conservation, released regulations for fracking that have been criticized for various reasons, including a failure to require oil companies to disclose the chemicals used in their processes.

But Department of Conservation Chief Deputy Director Jason Marshall does not see a need for more stringent regulations. He tells TakePart, “The department is not aware of any environmental harm done by the use of hydraulic fracturing over the past several decades in California, and the intent of the new regulations is to ensure that this oil and gas production method continues to be used safely going forward.”