Leslie Layton for New America Media / ChicoSol


The Sierra Club’s Dave Garcia is part of a campaign against hydraulic fracturing in Northern California. (Karen Laslo/ChicoSol)

CHICO, Calif. — On a summer morning, Dave Garcia, the political chair of the Sierra Club’s Northern California Yahi chapter, occasionally interrupted a tour of gas wells in the Sutter Buttes to point out wildlife: a scampering cottontail rabbit, a vigilant red-tailed hawk, and whizzing western kingbirds.

Garcia had brought a pair of journalists here to witness fracking in the Northern Sacramento Valley, something that most Northern Californians probably have no idea is underway in this area. The well sites appear almost deserted—there are no gas flares, no trucks moving huge tanks of water, no towering pump jacks. In fact, people are rarely seen at these electronically monitored stations. 

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”— a procedure used to capture hard-to-reach pools of oil and gas — has fueled a debate nationwide. Some studies show that fracking has links to water and air pollution, increased seismic activity, and water shortages.

In California, most of the debate has focused on development of the Monterey Shale in the southern San Joaquin Valley. There, oil companies want to exploit the nation’s largest shale-oil reserve. They’ve already begun, using fracking, horizontal drilling and a technique called “acidizing.” Much less attention has been focused on the natural gas reserves in rural Northern California, where fracking has occurred in Sutter, Glenn and Colusa counties.

According to an industry website, of the dozens of Sutter County gas wells, 15 were fracked a couple of years ago by Venoco, a Denver-based oil and gas company. These are small-scale fracking operations, comparatively speaking, but the Sierra Club’s Garcia is nonetheless concerned about possible contamination of the Tuscan Aquifer that slopes from the Sierras to the west side of the Buttes.

Efforts to regulate the drilling technique in California have also ramped up.

Earlier this fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4, which regulates fracking in the state for the first time. Brown supports increased fracking in the state.

SB 4 directs the state Dept. of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to establish regulations for fracking and another oil extraction method called acidizing, where acids are injected into a well to unlock oil deposits. Oil and gas companies will be required to obtain a permit, disclose chemical additives, and notify neighbors of plans to frack. The law also requires an independent scientific study.

Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, an SB 4 sponsor, said the law establishes some of the nation’s most stringent regulations for fracking and acidizing. But some environmentalists have criticized it for not going far enough. A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and California League of Conservation Voters, have either didn’t back or withdrew support for the bill. 

Anti-fracking activists across the state continue to press for a moratorium on fracking. In Butte County, a group belonging to the Chico Citizen Action Network is pressing for a local ordinance to halt fracking.

As California is on the brink of a great experiment in fracking regulation, state residents are grappling with a key question—whether fracking can be successfully regulated and safely conducted. Throughout the state, key interest groups — from anti-fracking activists and environmentalists to pro-business and oil industry representatives — are lining up to wage a battle over community support for fracking.

Fracking in rural Northern California

In the Northern Sacramento Valley, gas-well fracking has been underway, quietly and without oversight, for years, underscoring the freedom the industry has had to operate at will. California was late in regulating fracking.  On her website, Sen. Pavley points out that 14 other oil-producing states already regulate the practice.

In the fracking world, the word itself can mean different things.

Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth, then blasting a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into an encased well at high pressure to fracture rock, allowing the oil and gas in it to escape. It requires large volumes of water—a single operation might need 5 million gallons if the well is drilled horizontally.

By drilling horizontally, a well can be extended for thousands of feet. In several of these huge projects, chemicals have leaked or gas has seeped into aquifers in incidents that were linked to faulty well construction.

In California, “acid fracking,” or well acidizing, may yield better results than horizontal drilling, according to news reports. These “acid jobs” involve injecting huge volumes of highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid and other acids into a well to dissolve the rock.

In the Northern Sacramento Valley, fracking means fracturing rock in vertical or slanted gas wells, said Chico State geology professor Todd Greene. Fracking here “is not anywhere close to the type of fracking you see in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and New York,” he said.

Horizontal drilling has been used to exploit the Marcellus Shale and other large deposits in other parts of California.

Greene, who previously worked for the oil industry, notes that this part of the valley sits on sandstone—not shale rock. This area has gas, but little to no oil. Horizontal drilling that makes large-scale projects feasible isn’t usually effective in sandstone formations, Greene said.

But fracking in the North Valley raises similar concerns about possible leakage of toxic chemicals that are used in the process. More importantly, the lack of information about the extent of fracking in this region and elsewhere in the state point to inadequate state monitoring of a widespread practice.

Greene said, for example, that it would be useful to know what’s being done with the contaminated wastewater that flows back up a well after injection. On well pads in the Sutter Buttes, green drums hold up to 3,500 gallons.

Many of the wells are accessible from Pass Road, which winds along the base of what is known as the world’s smallest mountain range. The gas wells are behind gates that bear no-trespassing and danger signs. If you approach the wells, you might catch the wafting smell of gas or chemicals, or hear a humming or pumping sound. Homes on domestic wells are occasionally sprinkled around the bluffs.

Despite the widespread drilling – sometimes close to homes — it’s not easy to get basic questions answered, such as the direction of the drilling or where the wastewater goes. State regulators balked at the word “interview,” and an oil conglomerate provided what amounted to a “we don’t talk to the media” statement. 

A trail of fracked wells

DOGGR regulates California well-drilling, but hasn’t yet begun requiring an additional permit for fracking. DOGGR’s administration has been widely criticized in the past for failing to even monitor fracking. Officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

With little information provided by the state regulatory agency, the public has had to turn to other, incomplete sources of information on fracking operations in the state. 

In response to critics, DOGGR began compiling records on well-fracking last year, said Kyle Ferrar, state coordinator for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance.

FracTracker has identified 237 fracked wells that haven’t been reported to DOGGR. One of those missing from the DOGGR database is a Sutter Buttes well.

Sometime after Venoco fracked wells in the Sutter Buttes in 2011, it sold its Northern California holdings. DOGGR’s website indicates the wells are now under management of Vintage Production California, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum.

Occidental Petroleum’s External Relations Manager Amy Fonzo responded via an email, saying that due to “competitive and proprietary reasons,” Vintage doesn’t discuss its operations. 

Property owners who lease land don’t always fare well with the oil companies, either. 

A Glenn County landowner contacted the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), an environmental advocacy organization, earlier this year after an exchange with a company that drills for gas on her property. She was hesitant to renew a lease that required signing over mineral rights because she had grown increasingly worried about the safety of fracking. 

The company told her it wasn’t fracking, but if she didn’t renew the contract, it could access gas on her land from a neighboring parcel, according to BEC. 

Garcia first learned about horizontal fracking from the HBO film Gasland, which documented cases of groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wyoming. He then turned for information on this area to the website FracFocus, where oil and gas companies have been asked to report fracking.

FracFocus provides a rough and incomplete sketch of fracking in the state. Perhaps most alarming to many community activists is the fact that drilling companies don’t provide complete listings of the chemical concoctions they’re using, noting in some cases that an additive is a “trade secret.”

“Oil companies are way ahead of us in terms of what’s going on,” Garcia said. “They’re marching right along in their shroud of secrecy.”

Despite concerns about fracking’s risks to health and the environment, some community members welcome a fracking boom in the hopes that it will bring jobs. 

Where are the jobs?

On a July evening in a Marysville meeting hall, Bishop Ron Allen stood at the podium, discussing in his booming preacher’s voice unemployment, oil and untapped riches.

Allen, the founder of Sacramento’s International Faith Based Coalition, lent his oratory skill to promote a fracking boom at an “educational summit.” Allen told an audience that included Tea Party supporters and landowners that expanded oil and gas production would provide jobs and generate income in the “underserved community.”

“California has been standing on the sidelines despite having 60 percent of America’s shale [oil] reserves right beneath our feet,” Allen said. Then he added: “Somebody help us, please.”

The summit was sponsored by Roseville’s nonprofit Coalition of Energy Users, whose key leadership has ties to conservative organizations. It was one of several events this past summer, held by various groups, in which fracking was presented as a path out of poverty and economic stagnation. 

Outside the summit meeting, anti-fracking protesters held signs denouncing “Big Oil” and passed out flyers. Some of the protesters had requested seats at the summit weeks in advance, but said that when they arrived, they found their names on a “Do not admit” list and were greeted by members of the Sons of Liberty motorcycle club, who served as bouncers at the event.

Job creation is often trumpeted as a benefit of expanded production, but it’s hard to know whether fracking creates work on the valley’s northern gas fields.

Sutter County is a top producer of dry gas — the gas that comes from fields without any oil in the mix. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 13.6 percent in July, compared to the statewide average at 8.7 percent.

But some environmentalists argue that the hidden costs of fracking aren’t being considered.

“We’re going after the dirtiest fossil fuels that are left,” said Kassie Siegel, the director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are going to have higher and higher health and environmental costs. People will get sick and the climate crisis will get worse.”

Regulating fracking

Activists have been fighting for a moratorium that would stall fracking pending the outcome of scientific study. 

The oil industry fought off several bills that would have imposed a statewide moratorium on fracking in the 2013 legislative session. It also opposed Pavley’s compromise SB 4.

On its website, the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, says a law based on SB 4 should at least end talk of fracking moratoriums.

“There is no longer a place in California for the emotion-fueled demands for a moratorium of hydraulic fracturing,” wrote Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the WSPA. 

Environmental organizations say they’re worried that DOGGR will rubber-stamp permit applications instead of requiring environmental review. They’re worried that the bill prevents imposition of a statewide moratorium at some future point, though Pavley has disputed this.

Organizations that support a ban or moratorium warn against reliance on regulation. They often note industry exemptions from the nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act through what’s popularly known as the “Halliburton Loophole.”

Eight California communities have passed resolutions to ban fracking, including Berkeley, Culver City and Marin County, according to Food and Water Watch.

A few days after passage of Pavley’s bill, several anti-fracking activists set up a table at the Saturday Chico farmers’ market, collecting signatures on a ban petition. Activist Willow Dejesus said she’s worried about fracking’s impact on water supplies and aquifer contamination.

“Water doesn’t get any closer to the heart of our livelihood,” said Dejesus. “I don’t think regulation is an answer. There’s tons of regulations in place, but there’s always exemptions, always people who don’t follow regulations, always accidents.”

Though FracFocus doesn’t show fracked wells in Butte County, Garcia says he’s identified 10 active gas wells in the county. Once natural-gas prices start climbing back up, the wells could be subject to fracking, he said.

“These companies are going to be going to the old gas wells they have in Butte County and reworking them,” Garcia said. “That’s why it’s critical to get a moratorium.”

California’s fracking story has really just begun.

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.