Fracking On The North Coast

Across geologic time, rainwater sculpts the land into cradlelike entities that comprise a watershed. For the vast majority of inland Mendocino County, the basin that collects the water that the land first cradles is the collection of forks and stems that make up the mighty Eel River. Running 192 miles from south to north, the Eel drains all the land surface from south of Willits and east through the mountains above Potter Valley and Upper Lake, thence running northwest through Humboldt County, with land and water meeting the ocean outside of Ferndale: one low ridge south of Eureka and Humboldt Bay.

The large delta and estuary where the Eel's journey culminates is an area of giant ferns glades, redwood forests, swampy lands and windswept prairies. It has been populated since the beginning of time by the southern Wiyot people, among these people's subsistence practices have been to catch Lamprey eels, Salmon and Sturgeon in iris-leaf fish nets, and to collect shellfish along the river and in its estuary.

The Wiyot have known how to live on this land without severely depleting it. By the beginning of the 21st century, by contrast, the geologists and engineers who work for the United States of America's energy corporations and investment bankers had figured out how to do something altogether different. They had figured out to blast enormous quantities of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, under high pressure deep underground for the purpose of breaking up shale rock formations, allowing oil and gas to seep into horizontal pipes and thence into Pacific Gas & Electric's power plants.

That is, they had figured out to “frack” here.

The first known instance of an energy company “fracking” near the Eel River's estuary was in 2008, when Houston, Texas-based Foothills California, Inc. carried out the controversial extraction technique in two of its wells on Grizzly Bluff, located in the mountains south and west of Rohnerville and Alton. Foothills is a private firm incorporated in Houston, with a subsidiary in the epicenter of California's oil industry, Bakersfield. Three long-time Texas and California oilmen founded the company in 2006.

Foothills has received a sizable share of its financial backing from notorious global investment firm Goldman Sachs, the world's largest. The notorious merchant bank owned eight million shares in the company as of March 31, 2009, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Because Foothills, Inc. went private four years ago, right as fracking was becoming a swear word to environmentalists and people who oppose the poisoning and despoliation of water supplies in general. Thus, it is difficult to know exactly what sorts of drilling activities the company has undertaken since then, or what its current ownership structure is. Under California and federal law, they have not been required to disclose whether they are fracking, or where.

“In the past decade, we believe the industry has overlooked the hydrocarbon potential and production within the Eel River Basin due to its relatively isolated position in California,” the sole 2009 Foothills, Inc. report to its shareholders reads.

It continues, “We performed a CO2 foam fracture simulation program on the Vicenus 1-3 and GB 5 wells in June 2008. As of June 3, 2008, the wells were continuing to unload the fracture fluid, and the results of the fracture simulations had not been determined. Further drilling in the Eel River Basin will be planned after the cumulative results of these activities have been evaluated.”

All told, Foothills Inc. now has drilling rights on roughly 12,000 acres in the Eel River delta region in general, and on Grizzly Bluff in particular.

Another oil and gas company with holdings on Grizzly Bluff is Forexco, which reportedly works nine wells with another 13 on tap to be drilled in the near future. The company is registered in North Carolina, and its main backing comes from CitiGroup. The company also has proposed to construct a natural gas collection and transportation system that would cross the Eel River and interconnect with the existing gas sales delivery point at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) natural gas meter station in Alton.

In 2010, Forexco described their holdings in Grizzly Bluff in the following way: “all of the completions in this clay-filled, low-resistivity field are natural. It would appear that fracture stimulations would significantly increase production in most of the wells.”

Roughly five miles to the north of Foothills, Inc.'s Grizzly Bluff field is Tompkins Hill, located slightly to the northeast of the Eel River estuary. The Tompkins Hill natural gas field was discovered by Texaco in 1937 and has since produced in excess of 120 billion cubic feet of natural gas. (For comparison's sake, the US as a whole consumes 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually, or 208 times as much as Tompkins Hill produced in more than seven decades.)

These fields are now owned and operated by Vintage Petroleum, a subsidiary of global oil and gas mega-firm Occidental Petroleum. Occidental extracts oil in numerous countries throughout the globe, is the largest oil producer in Texas, and is the largest natural gas producer in California.

Occidental is perhaps best known to environmental and human rights activists for its involvement in massacres of the indigenous U'Wa people of Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The U'wa opposed oil drilling in their ancestral lands, saying that oil is “the blood of Mother Earth” and therefore must not be touched, setting up blockades of Occidental exploratory and extraction vehicles. Occidental pressured the Columbian military to intervene, and then the US military, which undertook so-called “low-intensity” operations in the area under the guise of looking for coca plantations as part of the so-called Plan Columbia “drug war.” In one case, the Colombian military raided an U'Wa village by dropping US-made cluster bomb that killed 18 people, including nine children.

Occidental eventually withdrew from the area in the face of international condemnation.

Vintage/Occidental currently operates 28 wells on Tompkins Hill . One of the biggest frackers in California, the company fracked 41 wells in Kern County in 2012 alone. It was also the first company to frack in the Sacramento Basin. Earth First! Humboldt largely confirmed that Vintage is fracking some of its wells on Tompkins Hill by assessing the types of vehicles and equipment that entered and departed from the company's wells late this past year.

Fracking has been much in the news in the last four years, having become a magnet for investment on the part of oil companies and investment banks, and their nation state co-dependents, on a global scale. The fracking boom requires much higher levels of capital and investment to squeeze petroleum from fickle rock formations than do more conventional extraction techniques. Fracking currently receives more than $40 billion of fresh investments every year in the United States alone.

Currently, fracking accounts for 40 percent of US natural gas production. Fracking of shale oil, meanwhile, has been the main factor pushing US petroleum production to its highest level in nearly three decades. A mad scramble to drill in the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota and Wyoming, Texas' Eagle Ford formation, and various other areas of the country, has reversed many onlookers' assumptions that Peak Oil is right around the corner.

Of late, California in particular has been a target of oil industry exploration and investment. In July 2011, a rosy report from the US federal government's Energy Information Administration released its estimates of readily recoverable gas and oil in the shale deposits of the United States, highlighted by the claim that the Monterey shale formation — which underlies much of the land in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, and beyond — is trapping 15.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

By these numbers, California accounts for nearly two-thirds of the US' shale oil resources. The reserves in California would dwarf those of big oil-producing countries like Mexico, Brazil, or Angola.

But fracking's inherent destructiveness has generated strong opposition on the part of those concerned about the land and water. For example, one hydrofracked well requires three to eight million gallons of water. When cement well-casings fail, which most do over time, natural gas can migrate from deep underground into the aquifer. This results in dangerous, undrinkable water – in some cases, as documented by the movie “Gasland,” people open their kitchen sink valve and are able to light the water on fire.

Moreover, methane seepage, common in frack wells, cancels the apparent climate benefits from natural gas, being that methane traps heat at about 20 times the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Fracking destroys wildlife habitat. It immiserates people in rural areas, whose water is contaminated and who cannot afford to move elsewhere or haul in clean water.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is a strong backer of fracking. Notably, he has already received $2.5 million from oil and gas interests, with Occidental Petroleum being one of the industry's top influence peddlers.

The same interests have also shaped the Brown administration's Bay Delta Conservation plan, including the Delta Twin Tunnels proposal to export water in two giant canals from the Sacramento River to California's existing massive system of tunnels and canals. The California oil industry's epicenter, Kern County, would be one of the primary destinations of the Twin Tunnels water.

California recently enacted new fracking regulations, which were fundamentally shaped by the oil and gas industry. They require drillers to alert neighboring landowners at least 30 days before fracking, and to test their water wells upon request. The drillers must do other groundwater monitoring and also disclose many of the chemicals used. The rules cover the use of acids, which are sometimes used to dissolve rock to access oil.

But these regulations do nothing to address most of the greater problems fracking poses, including the incredible volume of water it requires, the handling of fracking wastewater, the inevitable failings of cement casings, its release of methane, and the rest.

An important point here is that many of the projections about fracking catapulting California into the world's leading oil producer are probably greatly trumped up. While a considerable amount of fracking is already happening near Bakersfield, Rich Estabrook, a Ukiah-based petroleum engineer on the regulatory staff at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), sounds a cautionary note.

Oil and gas companies are eyeing the large tracts of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land with mineral rights over the Monterey Shale formation, leading to Estabrook's involvement in crafting regulations for the fracking industry on these lands.

“Even in the more accessible areas around Bakersfield, initial attempts to exploit the Monterey shale have not shown much,” Estabrook told the AVA. “And the mangled-up geology of the coast range makes large scale deposition unlikely for any type of oil and gas, shales or otherwise.”

He continued, “As far as I know, there are no known oil and gas deposits in Mendocino County, shale or conventional. Exploration and identification of deposits would take years (decades). If any deposits were found, they would have to be large-scale enough to justify the enormous costs of developing them, especially given the lack of oil and gas infrastructure here.”

Indeed, fracking in general has been the subject of considerable hype that holds little water since it first became a major part of the US' energy production portfolio. Shale gas production has been on a plateau since 2011, with existing major wells declining at a rapid rate. Many industry and federal government projections have turned out to be dramatically overstated.

In a profound sense, fracking is an indication of systemic desperation. As conventional oil reserves dwindle, the fossil fuel industry is increasingly turning towards extreme methods such as fracking, deepwater drilling (i.e., British Petroleum's disastrous 2011 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf Coast) and tar sands mining. Collectively, these are the most destructive fuel extraction techniques ever devised by human beings.

But there can be no arguing that fracking had become a massive industry worldwide, and that California is already sustaining massive amounts of ecological damage from the practice, with more to come. What impact it will have in the Eel River basin, where some of the most powerful financial and energy interest in this part of the world now hold thousands of acres of drilling rights, remains to be seen.

As Dan Zimmerman of the Northcoast Ocean and River Protection Association of Trinidad put it, in a recent e-mail to his organization's supporters: “Big players like Occidental, Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup don't take over an oil or gas field unless they know there is money to be made, any way they can make it. And when they do, our local and state regulators let them do whatever they want, no questions asked.”

This past week, Los Angeles became the largest city in the country to ban fracking. A rally this Saturday, March 15th in Sacramento aims to put additional pressure on California lawmakers to enact a statewide ban on the practice. Last year, Vermont became the first US state to ban fracking.

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