“One quart of motor oil that seeps into groundwater can result in 250,000 gallons of polluted drinking water,” states a magazine printed in partnership by the Association of California Water Agencies and National Geographic. (“Water for Tomorrow; California’s Water, Our Responsibility,” Vol. 1, No. 2)
And, in fact, there were 868 reported spills linked to oil and gas extraction and production in Ventura County between January 1994 and February 2013. The spills were of various substances and varying volumes. The list of spills was obtained from the Ventura office of the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Spilled materials included crude oil, produced water, gas and mercury. One spill in 2004 resulted in mercury contamination of 8 square feet of soil. It occurred during routine maintenance on a “vapor recovery apparatus” at a tank farm in Upper Ojai. The cleanup involved four hazardous materials crewmen and two trucks to “pick up the mercury.”
This list was not available at any county agency, and when Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2, presented it at a public hearing regarding hydraulic fracturing on April 9, it was the first time the Board of Supervisors and the public were made aware of the spills in the county.
“No one would dispute that there have been spills and incidents of contaminated water during the 100-plus-year history of oil production in California,” said Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation. He was responding recently by e-mail to questions regarding statements by industry representatives and state regulators that fracking, in particular, had not caused any proven incidents of contaminated water. But he admits, “No regulatory agency has the resources to watch every operation under its jurisdiction on a 24-7 basis.” And he points out that the oil and gas industry is regulated at local, state and federal levels and that “many groups and individuals who are concerned about the environment also watch the industry’s field operations closely. There are a lot of eyes in addition to DOGGR’s on statewide oil and gas operations.”
On Tuesday, May 21, Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved a measure proposed by Supervisors Steve Bennett, District 1, and Parks that moves the county toward monitoring hydraulic fracturing in the county. The vote was 4-to-1, with Supervisor Peter Foy, District 4, raising the only objections, saying he did not want to overburden the industry by gathering information on the process.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep underground to break apart dense rock and release oil that has previously been unrecoverable.
“I don’t know how anybody can say we shouldn’t ask that question,” said Bennett, regarding the proposal to add to the county’s conditional use permit (CUP) application a question about whether or not an operator plans to frack a well.
The measure will create a change on the CUP application and will ask operators to indicate whether or not they plan to frack the wells covered in the permit. It will also gather information regarding chemicals and water usage and disposal. Supervisors instructed staff to prepare the language and bring it back to them for review.
“[This measure] is important for us to know which well is being fracked, know what chemicals are being used and where [waste] water is being disposed,” said Parks during the introduction of the measure. “[With] more drilling, more chemicals will be used, more water to be disposed of, there is a greater risk for contamination [of] aquifers.” She called it a common sense measure that will allow the county to monitor fracking while regulations are put in place at the state level.
The Board heard from eight speakers during public comment. Six spoke in favor of the measure and two were opposed.
“Hydraulic fracturing is just one technique being explored,” said Sandra Burkhart, spokeswoman for Western States Petroleum Association and a current member and past CEO of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. “It is not a proven technique.” She pointed out that fracking may not necessarily work to get at the oil underneath Ventura County. But then moments later she stated, “Hydraulic fracturing is a proven technology, used [in the state] for more than 60 years and has never been associated with any environmental harm or groundwater contamination.” Burkhart emphasized that the county does not need to make any changes to its permitting process and that it should wait until the state has regulations in place.
DOGGR has completed the public hearing portion of its rule-making process, and state lawmakers have authored several bills to regulate it as well. Recently, the so-called Bloom Bill, AB 1301 passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara/Ventura counties, has authored AB 395 that deals with the frack fluid waste.
“I don’t want [California’s economy] to be energy-dependent on fracking,” said Jackson. “There is no good out of making fracking a key component of the state’s economy. If we see as much fracking happen as we are told to expect, it is going to do devastating things to the environment. We need to step back.” She emphasized the need to focus on job creation in the green energy sector and said that California needs to begin weaning itself off fossil fuels.
All state bills have a deadline of May 31 to get through the legislative body of origin or they die before a vote is completed. Sen. Fran Pavley’s (D-Agoura Hills) fracking bill, SB 4 heads to the senate floor on May 30 andif it passes will then head to the Assembly.
“My goal is to hold oil well operators accountable and answer critical questions about the risks of fracking to the economy, public health and safety and the environment,” said Pavley. “If fracking is going to occur, we need robust regulations including notification of neighbors, disclosure of chemicals and information about water use and waste disposal.”
But let’s forget about fracking for just a minute — we’ll get back to it a bit later. First, a little backstory.
Part of county history
“Oil came out and built this town,” said Foy.
“Ventura County has a long history of oil development,” said Lynn Jenson with the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) while speaking in opposition to the measure proposed by Bennett and Parks on May 21. “[Residents] may take for granted the products oil provides in our lives.”
Oil and gas extraction and production are a vital part of the history, makeup and economy of Ventura County. The industry molded how Ventura looks today, and is setting up to have a big impact on the future, especially if drillers are able to access the billions of barrels of oil that lie underfoot in the county.
“Two out of the top 10 property taxpayers in the county are [related to oil and gas extraction],” said Burkhart. “In a 2011 economic report, [the industry supported] 7,339 jobs and paid taxes of $333 million,” in Ventura County.
With the coming boom, those numbers are expected to increase.
Today, when you drive along Highway 150 through Santa Paula and into Upper Ojai, you can see oil flowing down the hillside. Locals are accustomed to the tar spots on their feet from walking on the beach. More and more families can put food on the table because of jobs associated with oil and gas production. Hikers in the mountains around the Ojai Valley may find pools of black crude oil bubbling up, and geology students visit the area to bag and study the methane that bubbles to the surface with the oil. Favorite burger joints and taco stands benefit from the lunch rush of oilfield workers.
Oil seeps — spots where oil reaches the surface on its own — have been here for hundreds of years and created an easy way for oil prospectors to identify locations where the oil was hidden underground. The man called “California’s first true petroleum pioneer,” George Shoobridge Gilbert, began extracting oil from Sulphur Mountain in the Upper Ojai Valley in 1861 (1*: reference at the end of the story). In 1865, Thomas Bard found, drilled and operated the first commercially viable oil well in the hills along what is now Highway 150 above Santa Paula. A 10-year-long oil boom began in 1916 when the South Mountain Oil Field was discovered in Santa Paula (1*). In 1919, the Ventura Oil Field was discovered; and by 1926, that one field was producing more than 20,000 barrels a day and led to the influx of workers, geologists and engineers and their families creating a spike in the population of the young county. (1*)
When oil prices jumped in the early ’70s in conjunction with the Arab oil embargo, operators looked to enhanced oil recovery (EOR) methods to get at the “heavy oil” that they hadn’t yet tapped. EOR methods use “pressure, heat and chemicals to overcome the natural forces that impede oil production.” (1)
Oil and gas production in Ventura County today
The five field engineers in the Ventura DOGGR office are responsible for oversight on the subsurface operations of wells operating under 135 active CUPs “for oil and gas exploration and development.” But the county planning department is responsible for issuing the CUPs, modifying them and ensuring that oil operators are abiding by the rules and regulations associated with the CUP in terms of land use.
In 50 oil fields, 57 companies operate the 12,252 oil and gas wells in the county that are currently on record with DOGGR. Of those wells, 2,834 are active (30 active wells are offshore), and an additional 73 are considered new. There are 1,875 idle wells — meaning the wells have not produced oil or gas for at least five years, but have not yet been plugged. That total, also includes 543 buried wells and 6,827 plugged wells. Confidential wells — new wells drilled in unproven oil plays — are not listed, as operators are allowed to keep those secret from the public to maintain their competitive edge.
Anterra class II oilfield waste facility at 1933 E. Wooley Road in Oxnard. Image from Google Maps. April 10. A similar image presented to VC Board of Supervisors by Oxnard resident Steve Nash at hearing on April 9. Anterra has applied for facility to relocate to Santa Paula.
DOGGR reports that in 2012 the county produced more than 10.76 million barrels (or more than 452 million gallons as one oil barrel equals 42 U.S. gallons) of oil. Mixed in and pulled up with all that oil is some natural gas (9.2 million cubic feet).
Businesses that support oil production activity benefit from increased activity in oil fields. Work needed on the oil fields can include new pipelines, welding, upgrading cement and steel casings inside the older wells and upgrading electrical systems. Trucking agencies, water transporters, road repair companies, cement companies and oilfield waste facilities may see economic benefit when oil companies prepare for increased production.
Oil fields produce waste products that must be disposed of properly. In 2012, 97 million barrels (or more than 4 billion gallons) of produced water (brackish, salty water considered toxic and likely to be contaminated with methane and radioactive compounds) came up as a byproduct of oil extraction in the county. And it has to go somewhere. For operators, there are various options for disposal. They can obtain permits to operate class II injection wells to put the wastewater back into the earth in existing oil fields; they can recycle it to reuse in operations or truck their waste off site to disposal facilities, such as Anterra Waste in Oxnard, which handles Class II waste, usually drilling wells specifically for waste injection. Businesses that transport and dispose of oilfield waste are likely to see a significant uptick in business as more drilling occurs.
In Ventura County, in just the first five months of this year, DOGGR has approved 33 new wells and given approval for 52 existing wells to be reworked — a general term meaning to deepen or to permanently change the structure of the well. That’s a total of 85 approved wells in the first five months of this year. That may not sound like a lot until you consider that 83 permits for new and reworked wells were granted in all of 2012 for the Ventura County area.
Where are the wells?
Oilfields in Ventura County share space with agriculture, watersheds, wildlife corridors and national forest lands.
There are oil fields operating in Oxnard (on- and offshore as operators are able to directionally drill from pads on the coast to submerged oil plays, an oil play being a group of oil fields or prospects in the same region that are controlled by the same set of geological circumstances), Simi Valley, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Ventura (along the Ventura River) and the Ojai Valley.
Impact on the environment
In March of this year, the Santa Clara River Trustee Council issued its final report on the “Santa Clara River ExxonMobil Oil Spill,” and its damage and environmental assessment as well as its accompanying restoration plan. This deals with two spills that occurred along the Santa Clara River and is one example of the negative environmental impact that the oil industry can have on the County.
Santa Clara River ExxonMobil oil spill
In January of 1991, 1,777 barrels (74,634 gallons) of crude oil was discharged from the ExxonMobil M-70 pipeline. While the spill happened in Valencia, the 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) that reached the Santa Clara River (SCR) “contaminated approximately 15 miles of the river channel and riparian corridor before the oil was contained … near Piru in Ventura County.” The report states that the “impacts … included not only injuries to wildlife, aquatic species and their habitats from oil contamination but also from the cleanup itself.” The report describes the processes for removing the oil from plants, soil and animals, and the massive cleanup on 23 acres of contaminated vegetation.
Santa Clara River ARCO oil spill
Three years later, on January 17, 1994, another pipeline, this time operated by Atlantic Richfield Company/Fourcorners Pipeline Company (ARCO) ruptured “during and following the Northridge earthquake,” resulting in a spill of 4,600 barrels (190,000 gallons) of oil directly into the Santa Clara River. “The ARCO spill and its cleanup affected fish, wildlife and their habitats from Valencia to Piru along virtually that same reach as the 1991 ExxonMobil spill.”
These two spills resulted in the “oiling and disturbance of over 100 acres of woody and herbaceous vegetation and 150 acres of river sediment and alluvium. Loss of undetermined number of fish … birds, other wildlife and aquatic species.”
In 1997, a federal court entered a consent decree for the ARCO spill that included a payment of $7.1 million “for natural resource damages.”
In 2002, about 12 years after the ExxonMobil spill, another consent decree was approved by a federal court. It included a “payment of $2.65 million (plus accrued interest on the total $4.7 million settlement amount) for natural resources damages).
A Trustee Council was formed and is responsible for “the development and implementation of restoration projects related to [these two spills].” It is currently seeking public input on the draft report and plan for restoration.
Vintage Petroleum and polluted runoff at Rincon
Earlier this month ,Vintage Petroleum entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) of Santa Barbara regarding the way Vintage manages polluted storm-water runoff from the Rincon Grubb oil field that ultimately drains into the ocean. “Oil field operations commonly discharge a wide range of conventional and hazardous pollutants, including oil and grease, benzene, arsenic, chlorides and ethanol xylenes,” said the press release issued by the EDC regarding the agreement. “[These can] pose risks to fish and other aquatic organisms, wildlife and human health.”
“[This agreement] will improve water quality along the miles of Ventura County beaches that receive untreated runoff from the Rincon/Grubb Oil field,” said Brian Segee, lead attorney for the EDC. “Oil and gas fields comprise large swaths of our local area, and the rise of fracking means that storm-water runoff from these fields may contain carcinogenic chemicals and other hazardous materials that were not previously present.”
“Vintage Production is committed to protecting our environment and the safety, security and health of our workers and our neighboring communities,” said Amy Fonzo, public relations manager for Vintage. “Vintage has agreed to reevaluate its management practices to further ensure against development-related erosion.” Vintage will evaluate whether any adopted practices could also be effective in other locations. When asked about why it took court action to make Vintage respond to high levels of contaminants in run off, Fonzo declined further comment.
What is all the fuss with fracking?
OK, now it’s time to look at fracking. Remember, the intention of fracking is to actually alter the geologic rock formation under the earth to allow the hard-to-get oil to come out. It is a well completion process that occurs after the easy-to-get oil has already been taken out of the well.
“[I have the benefit] of having clients in the industry. I’ve been in the industry for a while,” said Foy, at the meeting on May 21. “[Fracking] is just drilling. Just opening up [the ground]. No water goes on the ground. No company allows any of that to come back on the ground. Why overregulate? Why … make it difficult?”
In contrast to the comments made by Foy, DOGGR’s list of spills does include numerous spills of produced water. Casings did fail. There are human errors and faulty parts.
Jensen, who spoke against the measure before the Board, recently penned a pro-fracking piece in the May newsletter for COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business) that stated, “Disposal of fracturing fluids must meet [rules of the] … Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).” That is inaccurate. Produced water, whether or not it contains frack fluids, is considered toxic. If it came from any other industry, it would be covered under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, but due to the so-called Halliburton Loophole, a change made in 2005, waste from oil and gas fields is exempt from federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the SDWA. This seems to be why many states feel they must regulate oil and gas operations.
“The water in Midland is unpotable,” said Leonard Glascock a resident originally from Midland, Texas. “There is a super boom there right now with fracking. You are gonna get a lot of money; you will just love it. And your water will be damaged. There is no dispute about that in Midland. They are raping West Texas and leaving it to blow in the wind.”
“Our water quality is critical. But [this fracking is occurring] 8,000 or more feet below impermeable material,” said Foy. “This is so far below that nothing is permeating through that.”
The process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Foy is referring to cap rock. This is the rock layer between the shallow aquifers and the deep reservoirs that contain the oil. And it is true that cap rock is a protective barrier for the aquifers and that the oil has been trapped below it for thousands of years. And it is also true that the drilling is taking place through the cap rock, and fracking is occurring well below the cap rock. Some geologists have concerns about drilling through that cap rock and point out that once you drill to these depths, below the impermeable layer of the cap rock, that protective layer has now been breached, creating a potential passageway to the aquifers for contaminants should a casing fail.
DOGGR officials and industry representatives say that they know of no incidents where fracking specifically has caused groundwater contamination in the state.
But there is the Kern County case of Starrh v. Aera, in which Mr. Starrh was awarded more than $8 million in damages for the death of his pistachio and almond trees after he irrigated them with water that had been contaminated with frack fluids in produced water that had been disposed of in a waste pit near his property.
It is true that drilling and well construction are heavily regulated in the state, and there are pages of instructions about how casings shall be built, monitored and maintained. But during fracking hearings earlier this year in Sacramento and targeted questions from Sen. Jackson, DOGGR officials relied wholly on the culture of self-monitoring, self-testing and self-reporting for oversight on all oil and gas operations. That reliance on operators to report accurately and truthfully to regulators doesn’t strike confidence in everyone. At those hearings, DOGGR officials also confirmed that they have not tracked or monitored fracking at all.
DOGGR is in the process of creating regulations for fracking. It is finished the public hearing portion and will soon begin the formal rule making process. Officials estimate it will take 15 to 18 months to enact the resulting regulations. Last month, county supervisors heard from county counsel that they could not prohibit fracking outright, but had to use the existing land use permitting process.
“We have been letting the oil companies do what they want,” said Jackson. “The governor wants us to wait for DOGGR, but we need to move with all due speed to try and regulate and monitor the whole process. In Ventura County, companies are moving to buy up mineral and drilling rights. It is going to involve a lot of money.” Jackson points to the several fracking bills making their way through the legislative process, including her bill, SB 395, which reclassifies oilfield waste as class I waste requiring that the Department of Toxic Substances Control be in charge of monitoring the waste products, including frack fluid that comes up with produced water. “Why we exempt fracking waste (by classifying is as class II) is beyond me,” she says. “It contains 29 chemicals that are known carcinogens.”
It’s also true that fracking has been happening in the state and county for decades (since the late ’40s, actually) and that most, if not all, wells have already been fracked. Industry representative confirm this.
“When they say that [fracking] has been done for decades, with no contamination and no problems, that is not a true statement,” said Jackson. “There have been lawsuits brought, settlements made with nondisclosure agreements. If everything was [fine], then why [is there a] nondisclosure clause in the agreements? The technology has changed dramatically [with] increased pressures; more water [is injected] into the earth’s core.” She spoke about the new technology that allows companies to drill down eight miles or more and horizontally. “It is technically more sophisticated [now],” she said.
Aera Energy drill rig. One of three drill rigs easily visible from Highway 33 on April 9 at shell road.
The Monterey Shale has always been there, deep underground. Untapped. New technology is allowing oil companies to begin to tap into the 15.4 billion barrels estimated to be trapped in the dense rock formation tens of thousands of feet underground. Industry representatives say fracking is different in California, which is not as conducive to fracking, and that there isn’t the horizontal drilling that occurs in other areas of the country. Supporters of fracking point to the fact that the Monterey Shale varies in depth under Ventura County and that makes it unattractive for horizontal fracking.
“All sides acknowledge the Monterey Shale varies [in depth],” says Dr. Tom Williams, Ph.D in geology and zoology from UC, Berkeley, who has worked in the industry for decades as a consultant with more than 15 oil and gas companies all over world, including the government of Dubai. He now speaks on behalf of Sierra Club of California. “There are lots of formations [under parts of Ventura County] that have hard shale more than 200 feet thick and [covering areas of] 2,000 acres,” said Williams. He explained that makes these areas prime for the expensive process of fracking. He also recommended watching for more fracking as the price of oil goes up, making it more economically viable.
Varied public response
When citizens ask questions about fracking, protecting drinking water, regulations, risks and benefits, or bring up the possibility of a moratorium, they are frequently targeted with attacks that they are invoking the infamous Not in My Back Yard response.
“It is not NIMBYism [to be concerned about fracking]. It is environmental stewardship,” said Jackson. “It is being good citizens. It is our duty to determine the impacts on our air, aquifers and environment.”
The California Chamber of Commerce has consistently opposed any bill calling for a fracking moratorium while regulation is put in place, on the grounds that it is “a job-killer.”
Ventura County Supervisors Linda Parks and Steve Bennett at the Ahmanson Ranch project in 2003.
But this month, while speaking in opposition to the Bloom Fracking Moratorium Bill, AB 1301, in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, industry spokesman Theo Pahos with the California Independent Petroleum Association stated that we are “unlikely to see” job growth with fracking outside of Kern County because that is where “80 percent of all fracking occurs.”
A group of concerned citizens in Ventura County have recently formed, Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG), which is aimed at ensuring effective oversight of all oil and gas activity in the county. The group formed in response to an application by Mirada Petroleum of Santa Paula to modify its existing CUP and drill nine new wells and rework two existing wells in an area behind Thomas Aquinas College above Santa Paula. CFROG says County Planning approved the modification without any environmental review and that it wants to force the county to conduct a full impact report.
CFROG raised $2,000 to pay the initial appeal fee and is now preparing for the public hearing before the Planning Commission on May 30, in which Segee and the EDC will represent it in seeking to have the county require a supplemental environmental impact report (EIR) on the proposed wells.
“There is no way to know the impact of these wells,” said John Brooks, a resident of Oak View. “So until there is an environmental impact report (EIR) that looks at both the individual and cumulative effect, the drilling should not go forward.” In the years since the CUP was last examined in 1985, things have changed, he says. “My own view is that a new EIR and a county policy on hydraulic fracturing would be the best result of our appeal.”
(1) Ventura County General Plan, June 28, 2011
To view the report on the oil spills in the Santa Clara River visit: www.dfg.ca.gov/ospr/NRDA/mobil-santaclara.aspx
For more information on CFROG visit: www.CFROG.org
Kimberly Rivers is a freelance reporter working in Ventura County. She writes on many issues, but has launched a news website that focuses on the oil and gas industry in Ventura County. The list of spills in Ventura is available at – www.VCInFocus.com.
For the full feature, including the impacts on the environment, go to vcreporter.com.