SHAFTER – One afternoon last fall, Tom Frantz cradled a video camera in his hand and pointed it at an oil well on the edge of this San Joaquin Valley farm town.
Workers shuffled amid trucks and drilling equipment, preparing the site for hydraulic fracturing – fracking, for short – the controversial drilling method that has the potential to spark an economic boom in California and perhaps even free the state from foreign oil.
But Frantz recorded something less promising: oily-brown waste spilled from a pipe into an unlined pit near an almond grove, followed by a stream of soapy-looking liquid.
"That was kind of shocking," said Frantz, 63, a fourth-generation farmer. "We can't live without fresh groundwater. It doesn't take much to ruin that."
This is not the first time oil companies have fracked wells in California.
Today, though, they are doing it more often and in more places to try to tap an enormous buried treasure called Monterey shale.
Stretching from Los Angeles north along the coast and into the San Joaquin Valley, the formation is not just another potential new source of domestic oil. It is the grand prize, the richest oil shale formation in America. If it can be fully exploited – and that is not yet clear – it is estimated to hold enough oil to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, flood the state with tax revenue and halt oil imports to California for a half-century.
But here in the manicured, mint-green farm country around Shafter – a modern-day Sutter's mill on California's new fracking frontier – that promise is already being clouded by conflict, pollution and fear.
Along once-quiet rural roads, residents complain about dust and noise from trucks and drilling equipment. Large metallic flares dot the countryside, burning off methane and other gases into one of the most polluted air basins in America.
Last year, one flare roared for months close to Walt Desatoff's home outside Shafter. "I called it my loud, expensive porch light," he said.
"We'd have to get away for a few days just to get to quiet. It was very unfortunate."
The biggest concern is what can't be seen: the high-pressure injection of fluids, some toxic, under aquifers and some of the richest farmland on earth. "If you ruin the water, who's going to buy the crops?" asked Frantz.
The industry says there's no reason for worry. "We can say – and say it confidently – that we're not aware of any risk to California from this technology," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association.
Others, though, advise caution. "There is tremendous (scientific) uncertainty," said Michael Kiparsky, associate director of UC Berkeley's Wheeler Institute for Water Law and Policy and co-author of a recent report that found gaping holes in California's regulation of fracking.
"California has historically been a leader in the governance of environmental issues" – but not fracking, Kiparsky said. "There is the opportunity to learn a lot from other states and try not to repeat their learning experiences."
The report cited many possible remedies, such as banning the underground injection of liquid drilling wastes near risky earthquake faults and requiring that companies give advance notice before fracking and disclose all chemicals used in the process.
State lawmakers are scrambling to fill the void. This year, they introduced 10 fracking-related bills. Only one – focusing on public notice, disclosure and better monitoring – remains alive. The others died for a mix of reasons, including opposition from both the industry and environmentalists.
For some, including Desatoff, change can't come soon enough. A retired businessman, he moved to rural Shafter in the early 1990s for its quiet pace of life. Now, he can smell the gassy odors and hear the million-mosquito drone of heavy equipment from his front porch.
"I'm not opposed to it," he said. "We just need more control. Let's do it right. Let's do it safe. Let's do it where it's monitored and (companies) are not just given carte blanche to do whatever they want."
Site off limits to public
Across the street, on land that once grew roses, is a tangle of pipes, pumps and tanks atop a promising section of Monterey shale where wells are drilled and fracked: the North Shafter oil field. But don't expect a more detailed description here because the site, operated by Vintage Petroleum, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., is off-limits to the public and the media.
"We don't do tours of our properties due to safety and security reasons," Occidental spokeswoman Susie Geiger told The Bee.
In response to growing national controversy, Occidental and other companies began posting some details about fracking on a website, fracfocus.org, in 2011. That site, which is voluntary, shows Kern County is the epicenter of fracking in California and the pace of activity is accelerating. In the first three months this year, more than 170 wells were fracked, mostly in Kern County, more than double the same period in 2012.
"Folks are looking eagerly at that resource," said Hull.
Whether the shale can be fully tapped is uncertain because its geology is complex. But if so, fracking's boom-time promise could spread more widely.
That's because what lies beneath California is an oil shale whale, a 1,750-square-mile river of rock estimated to hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil – four times more than the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which has ignited a frenetic drilling boom and helped reduce the nation's import of foreign oil to 45 percent in 2011.
California's reliance on foreign oil, though, continues to climb. Last year, a record 51 percent of crude oil delivered to California refineries came from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ecuador and other countries, according to California Energy Commission figures.
Hull said tapping the Monterey shale not only could reverse that trend but actually make California energy independent.
"The numbers are quite straightforward," he said. "If you take 15 billion barrels and produce it at 600,000 barrels a day, there is enough to replace everything we import for about 50 years."
Such a boom would deliver "huge benefits to California," Hull said, including tens of thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenue.
"We think this is among the most exciting, promising, optimistic developments in this state's future," he added.
Some chemicals very toxic
But many wonder at what cost? High on the list of concerns are the chemicals that companies inject into the shale, along with large volumes of water and sand, to free up its oil. They include compounds ranging from "generally harmless to extremely toxic," the UC Berkeley study reported.
Many of those compounds are reported on the industry's website – but not all. Some remain confidential, protected as industry trade secrets. Even in the oil-drilling town of Taft, southwest of Shafter, some think that should change, including James Bendzick, a Vietnam veteran and maintenance man at Taft College.
"The public has a right to know what's going in the ground; it's as simple as that," Bendzick said recently, outside his car in a Rite Aid parking lot. "I'm not against fracking, per se. I'm just saying you better know what you're dealing with. If this stuff is going to come back up, what is it?"
The industry's Hull said the risk of contamination is low because fracking typically occurs more than a mile beneath the surface, far below the water table. What's more, he said, fracking has a good environmental track record in the state.
"The technology has been in use in California for 60-some odd years," he said. "There has never been an assertion or claim that we are aware of that hydraulic fracturing has posed a risk or harmed the environment in any way."
Environmentalists say the industry's clean slate comes with a caveat: Before reporting on "fracfocus" began in 2011, no one knew where wells were being fracked.
"They did this for five decades with basically no oversight," said Bill Allayaud, California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. "People could have pollution in their groundwater and we would have no idea."
The Berkeley study listed several ways such contamination might occur, including "improper storage and handling of fluids at the well site, injection of wastewater into disposal wells which can trigger earthquakes and failure of well integrity."
After filming waste flowing into a pit at a Vintage fracking site last fall, Frantz posted his video online. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board launched an investigation, which is ongoing.
Doug Patteson, a supervising engineer with the water board, said Vintage was authorized to dump drilling mud – which is used in the drilling of boreholes – into the unlined pit but not the highly saline water and other fluids Frantz recorded.
"We are always concerned with any discharge to land that could affect groundwater," Patteson said.
Occidental's Geiger said addressing the board's concerns is a "top priority," but declined to comment until the investigation is complete.
"They were breaking the conditions of their permit," said Frantz. "Those were fluids that should have been nowhere near that dirt pit."
Dozens of wells at Shafter
While fracking's risks to groundwater remain unknown, its footprint on the surface is hard to miss around Shafter, a farm town of 17,000 northwest of Bakersfield.
"I count 75 wells on the north side of Shafter that weren't there 10 years ago," said Frantz. "They go right up to the city and through the city and slightly on the south side now as well."
For some, those wells are a welcome new source of royalty revenue. "Some people are making thousands of dollars a month," said Frantz.
But the activity is also taking a toll.
"There is always something going on – always noise, dust, what not," said Desatoff, the retired businessman who lives next to the Vintage site.
Last year, he recorded some episodes on his iPhone, including the full-bore rattle of two nearby pumps. "Making noise, making life uncomfortable again. Don't appreciate it," he says in the clip.
On other clips, Desatoff captured the jet-engine roar of an oil well flare that burned for weeks at a time, shooting a dragon-like tongue of flame high into the sky, night and day.
"The first few hours it's not so bad," he said. "But after a day, it starts really getting on your psyche and your sense of sanity. It was very unfortunate."
Data reported to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District show the flare often burned more than 2.5 million cubic feet of gas per day in August and September of 2012 – enough to heat every house in Shafter for a year, according to Frantz.
"It was huge," he said. "It was shaking windows of nearby residents."
Frantz believes oil companies should be required to minimize flaring to conserve energy. But his biggest concern is air pollution.
"In those two months, that flaring emitted 5 tons of nitrogen oxide and 6 tons of volatile organic compounds," said Frantz. "Those two ingredients make ozone – and that's a huge problem at the southern end of the Valley."
The air quality district fined Vintage $750.
"The air is getting worse because of the flaring of the gas from the fracking," said Frantz. "It's right in our backyard. This flare is a half mile from an elementary school."
After Desatoff complained, Vintage built a sound barrier around the flare. It still burns today, but not as high.
"They are reactive to issues, not proactive," he said. "I'd think that in such a highly watched and questioned industry, they would be doing more to calm my concerns and fears, rather than spiking them higher. I just don't see them being good stewards of the land."
Occidental did not respond to a request for comment.
"There needs to be some kind of governing body," said Desatoff. "I've never seen anybody out here watching what they're doing (who) is not pro-oil."
Call The Bee's Tom Knudson, (530) 582-5336. Follow him on Twitter @tomsplace.