Monterey County Pushes Back on Fracking

Dec 13, 2012

Earlier this year so-called thumper trucks rolled into downtown Aromas.
Credit Vinnee Tong

Oil Companies were among those who purchased oil and gas exploration rights yesterday on public land in Central California, including southern Monterey County.  This is raising concern that hydraulic fracturing will gain wider use, and has led some to call for a ban on fracking. 

The town of Aromas sits on the edge of Monterey and San Benito counties.  Its downtown has a gas station, a feed store, and a grocery market.  “So this is our stop sign,” jokes resident Maureen Cain.  Aromas actually does have more than one stop sign. But it’s a small town, and the 2,000 or so residents are spread out. That makes Aromas a pretty quiet place.  So people noticed, and started talking, when so-called thumper trucks came to town earlier this year.  “The thumper trucks were, you know, they were like our wake-up call. Maybe this happens in a lot of communities and nobody knows until it’s happening. But the thumper trucks were our canary in the coal mine. They were our alarm bell to say, what’s going on here,” said Cain.

What’s going on here isn’t entirely clear, but residents say the ground literally shook beneath them. They suspect an oil company was inspecting the area to see if it would be good for fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting oil or gas from rock.  Aromas sits on the giant rock formation known as the Monterey Shale. It stretches from north of San Diego, up past San Francisco, out into the Pacific Ocean, and inland into the San Joaquin basin.  Cain belongs to Aromas Cares for the Environment.  It’s a community group that opposes fracking but at the very least wants oil companies to be monitored, if they’re fracking the Monterey shale.  “We’re not in this to just be no, no, no. We’re compromisers and we’re people who want good for everyone,” said Cain.

At his office in Monterey, County Supervisor Dave Potter isn’t looking for compromise.  He’s concerned that in this agricultural rich county fracking could contaminate the water supply or do other harm. He wants state regulators to act now.  “Quite frankly I’d hope they’d put a ban on it, right now. I suspect when they do look into this, they’re going to find that fracking is having a serious impact on Mother Nature,” said Potter.  Potter and fellow supervisor Simon Salinas recently wrote to the federal Bureau of Land Management. The asked the BLM to postpone Wednesday’s auction of oil and gas exploration rights for nearly 18,000 acres of public land in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties.   By law, the BLM must periodically auction off these mineral rights.  So despite this opposition, and a protest outside the auction in Sacramento, the sale went ahead, and all the parcels sold.   Supervisor Potter says his constituents are worried.  “A lot of concern, a lot of fear of the unknown. And the water supply we have in some areas are very marginal to begin with.   They’re concerned they’ll be without potable water,” said Potter.

Two bills to regulate fracking have been introduced in the California legislature, but right now there’s no state laws, or even federal laws, to govern or monitor fracking.  And in Monterey County officials don’t know how much or where fracking is already going on.  So recently, the county started requiring oil companies to complete a questionnaire when they apply for a new drilling permit. It’s designed to help the county determine if the oil company plans to frack.  Taven Kinison Brown, a Senior Planner with the county, explains what’s on it, “how deep?  How far?  What is the water you’re going to use?  The trucks, the pathways, how are you going to dispose of the materials? Are there any special methods you’re going to use to test for this oil?”  The questionnaire, at the very least, can help Monterey County keep tabs on any future fracking.