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Extreme Energy: Out of Control Out West

Walt Desatoff in front of oil rig in Shafter, CA
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

 

California, here it comes— a surge of extreme energy methods like fracking that aren't regulated and potentially threaten the Golden State's water, air and health.

In the farming community of Shafter, two hours north of los Angeles, there once was a rose field that Walt Desatoff could see from his house across the street.

Today, Desatoff sees oil rigs. They are ugly to look at, noxious to smell and at times loud enough to rattle his windows. Drilled by Vintage Petroleum, a division of Occidental Petroleum, the wells are in the vanguard of expanded oil drilling in California's Central Valley—and Desatoff, like other residents, is nervous.

"At first they say the oil field's dead, they say they're not going to do any more," Desatoff, 64, says. "Then they started drilling all over the place. It was horizontal drilling and the fracking—that was the key."

During fracking, hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of water are mixed with toxic chemicals and injected down wells at high pressure, fracturing the underground rock formation to force oil and gas to the surface.

The process across America has been largely deregulated, with exemptions from key portions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other federal laws. In California, however, there is no regulation of fracking, even as the state faces sudden growth in oil drilling. Industry observers are bracing for a large-scale energy surge driven by rising oil prices, the discovery of vast oil shale deposits and an upsurge in extreme extraction methods like horizontal drilling, fracking and a process known as steam extraction.

The prospects of such an unregulated energy rush are troubling to Earthjustice attorney George Torgun, who is leading a legal battle to bring about the state's first regulations of fracking. "California is way, way behind other states in addressing the serious environmental and public health threats posed by unconventional energy development," he says.

Walt Desatoff looks out window at oil field across the street
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

 

On the frontlines of that energy rush, Desatoff is also troubled. One night he looked out his upstairs window and saw one of the nearby wells on fire. "There were flames 200, 300 feet up in the air," he recalls.

Desatoff worries about the air pollution coming off those flared wells, and wonders whether the chemicals in the giant fracking wastewater pits will seep into his drinking water well. When the noise and fumes from the site's diesel engines grew too unbearable, the family had to reschedule a graduation party and an Easter egg hunt.

He's registered his concerns with state agencies, with little to show for it. "It seems like the oil companies are dictating a great deal. They're more in control than the state," he notes.

At one point, state regulators seemed poised to take a more active role overseeing the state's extreme energy rush. When an oil field worker was sucked underground and boiled alive in a grisly accident at a steam extraction site, Elena Miller, of the state agency in charge of regulating the industry—Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)—moved to clamp down on the practice. She and her boss Derek Chernow, the acting director at the state Department of Conservation, held up drilling permits in order to get more information from the industry.

After the industry complained, however, Miller and Chernow were both fired by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Miller's replacement, Tim Kustic, has proved a far less conscientious regulator. At first, Kustic claimed fracking was not occurring in California. When presented with the industry's own figures estimating that some 600 California wells were fracked in 2011 alone, Kustic insisted the agency was overseeing the practice. Finally, Kustic was forced to admit that the agency had no information about where or when oil companies were fracking, what pollutants they were releasing into the air and water, and what other risks they are taking. Risks associated with extreme energy development aren't confined to the lightly populated Central Valley.

Gary Gless stands in his Windsor Hills neighborhood overlooking the Inglewood Oil Field
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

 

The Inglewood oil field—the world's largest urban oil field—is squeezed onto the edges of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills, Culver City and Windsor Hills; and resident Gary Gless is keeping an uneasy eye on it.

Gless, who spent most of his life building movie sets for Hollywood, is hoping that real life won't imitate the epic disaster flicks being filmed on nearby studio lots.

Not long ago, everyone, even the oil companies, thought the field had been pumped nearly dry.

But then oil and gas companies across America began touting big profits from new and more risky, destructive techniques to extract fossil fuels, ushering in what Hampshire College professor Michael Klare describes as an era of "extreme energy." The era is marked by industry attempts to drill in harsh Arctic Ocean waters for oil, blasting off mountain tops for coal in Appalachia, and shooting hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemically treated water into the earth to extract oil and gas. Along with this extreme energy rush are troubling reports of industrial accidents and public health impacts.

In spite of the risks to nearby residents, Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) took a renewed interest in the Inglewood oil field, readying plans to drill hundreds of new wells.

Shortly after exploratory drilling started, Gless and his neighbors began seeing cracks in the foundations of their homes that they linked to drilling in an already seismically active area. Gless and others worry that the 300,000 or so residents who live within a three-mile radius of the oil field—including a sizable population of elderly residents and young children—will not be able to evacuate in time in the event of a major industrial accident. They've endured one serious scare already: In 2006, PXP's drilling operations vented noxious fumes that swept across nearby neighborhoods and forced residents to evacuate.

In the face of these risks, Earthjustice is pushing for greater oversight. The statewide fight against unregulated extreme oil exploration took off in the fall of 2012 when Torgun sued DOGGR for failing to consider or evaluate the risks of fracking, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

"We've learned in our state-by-state fights that in the face of intense industry pressure, state agencies need to be pushed to do the right thing," Torgun told the San Francisco Chronicle the day the lawsuit was filed. "That's what this suit is all about."

Just two months after the suit was filed, DOGGR unveiled a discussion draft of rules—a starting point for new regulations governing the industry. The draft regulations are far from adequate, though, and Torgun is prepared to challenge them in court, should the state finalize its watered-down rules.

Meanwhile, grassroots groups are pressing for change across California. Gless and his neighbors have fought PXP at every step, turning out hundreds of neighbors to public meetings and managing to hold off a sizable portion of new drilling in the Inglewood field.

These acts of courage and resistance add up. And lined up correctly, they could have a domino effect. In Colorado, a longtime oil and gas producing state, voters are passing local bans against the industry.

An almond farmer watches oil wells that have sprouted up near almond orchards in Shafter, CA
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

 

By April 2013, fracking critics in New York still managed to maintain their state's moratorium on horizontal fracking. Growing anti-fracking movements in Maryland and North Carolina have also put elected officials on notice.

"The oil industry has been given a free pass from complying with basic environmental laws in California for a long time," says Torgun. "But with the serious threats posed by new techniques like fracking, Californians are now demanding change to protect their families and their communities."

"Since our state leaders appear to be inclined to allow for 'business as usual' by the industry, Earthjustice is ready to stand up and fight to protect public health and the environment."

First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2013 issue.

Update: In September 2013, Gov. Brown signed SB-4, a controversial bill that fails to protect the public from hydraulic fracturing. Read more.

The era of "extreme energy" is marked by industry attempts to drill in harsh Arctic Ocean waters for oil, blasting off mountain tops for coal in Appalachia, and shooting hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemically treated water into the earth to extract oil and gas. Along with this extreme energy rush are troubling reports of industrial accidents and public health impacts.