LOS ALAMOS, Calif. – In a place where oil exploration long co-existed with agriculture, a three-story contraption humming day and night in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country struck residents as a mere curiosity until someone uttered the petroleum industry's dirty word: fracking.
The industry claims fracking, or hydraulic fracturing — a method of extracting hard-to-reach gas and oil by pummeling rocks deep underground with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals — has been safely used for decades. But critics worry it can contaminate groundwater, cause air pollution and trigger small earthquakes.
Now, this little one-road town of Los Alamos is drawing attention to what many say is a largely unmonitored practice in California, the country's second-largest oil producer. The discovery that fracking has quietly been going on for years in California has galvanized oil foes and led to proposed legislation that would regulate the practice and make companies disclose the chemicals they use, the amount of water they're pumping and where they are fracking.
This comes as welcome news to Steve Lyons, who doesn't own the mineral rights on his ranch in Los Alamos and has been trying to get a precise list of chemicals that Denver-based Venoco Inc. has been injecting so he can test his water. His 2,500 acre ranch just off a rural two-lane highway unfurls into a lush valley of grape vines and oak trees. Cows stroll past bobbing pump jacks just up the road from strawberry fields.
"Once the water gets contaminated it's not easy to reverse that and if we don't have water there's no reason to have land," he said. "We just last week tested the water from our wells for chemicals but one of the problems is we don't know what to test for."
The Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources or DOGGR, which oversees drilling, has said it does not know where and how often fracking occurs in California because budget constraints have prevented them from developing regulations to address the practice. While the agency requires drilling permits and enforces groundwater protections, once those permits are acquired, drillers are allowed to employ techniques such as fracking to get the oil out of the ground without additional reporting.
"I was surprised and actually shocked at their continuous response that since there are no reporting requirements they're not able to answer any of those questions including the amount of water used, impacts on water quality, the chemicals used, as well as where fracking is occurring," said Sen. Fran Pavley, whose questions prompted the agency's admission. "I don't know what the rational is and why it's been ignored."
Legislators have introduced a bill that supporters say would be among the most stringent fracking laws in the country if passed. The bill passed off the Assembly floor last week and is now headed into a state Senate committee. Similar proposals are under consideration elsewhere including Texas and Montana.
"To protect the public resource and oversee this industry our state agency should know what's going on in the field," said Bill Allayaud, the California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which is sponsoring the bill. "They seem to have turned a blind eye toward it."
Industry officials say hydraulic fracturing is one of many techniques used since the 1940s and that concerns are overblown. With the days of easily accessible oil and gas gone, companies are relying on deeper-drilling techniques more often to explore new areas.
News reports of environmental issues in other parts of the country as well as the Academy Award-nominated HBO documentary "Gasland," which shows startling footage of property owners lighting their tap water on fire, have contributed to the hype, they say.
"We're a little surprised that there's this sudden interest and focus on a problem that to the best of our knowledge does not exist or has never been shown to exist," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. "We think the record is unequivocal that it's safe "
In comparison to other states such as Pennsylvania, which has had groundwater contamination issues, industry experts say the fracking in California is done at greater depths farther away from the water table and uses less of the water and chemical mixture overall. The practice involves drilling thousands of feet underground and then injecting a mixture of mostly water, chemical additives and sand at extremely high pressure to cause fractures in underground formations in order to stimulate the flow of gas or oil. During a three-week drill, a company might frack at most two days said Rock Zierman, CEO, California Independent Petroleum Association
Proponents of the practice say the fracking fluids are mostly water and only .5 percent chemicals, but some of those chemicals can be toxic.
While the state does not currently track where and when fracking occurs, experts say they believe it's also been used in Monterey, Kern, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. In Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills, residents blame fracking for a variety of health problems and causing their homes to shift and crack.
Michael G. Edwards, vice president of corporate relations for Venoco, referred some questions to industry groups and declined to comment on specific questions from The Associated Press on drilling in Santa Barbara.
Edwards said the company had secured all of the required permits and isn't the first to frack in Santa Barbara County, saying the technique has been used at other wells for at least 25 years.
Edwards also said the state requires wells to be encased in steel and cemented into place to protect fresh water, and that the wells are almost two miles below the surface and fresh water zones.
In the meantime, residents of Los Alamos, a town of approximately 1,400, say they are waiting for answers on how concerned they should be. Drilling issues have long been part of the consciousness in Santa Barbara, where a massive gusher off the coast in 1969 is credited with helping to spearhead the modern environmental movement.
John Morley, who owns a café and art gallery that is considered the town hub offers visitors a one-page primer on fracking.
"I think the people in town should be concerned," he said. "I'm getting all these mixed messages but there's no clarity."