Farmers, vintners and ranchers
speak out for a sustainable future
By Lis Bensley Photography by Margaux Gibbons
As a fourth-generation walnut grower, Paul Hain remembers romping freely as a boy over 90 acres of walnut groves on his family farm just south of Hollister. Since he took over the family business in 1978, times have changed and his ranch has, too. The size of his walnut orchard is smaller now, due to a mixture of estate sales and bouts with black lime disease, but discovering that he found it “more profitable and more fun to work with nature than to try to dominate it, as conventional does,” he went organic in 1993, becoming Hain Ranch Organics. In 2000, he diversified his farm, adding chickens that range freely, fertilizing the walnut trees and producing organic meat and eggs. Under these conditions, his farm prospered.
Then three years ago the drought hit. Thus far, he’s been able to manage with water he can draw from his wells, but he doesn’t know how long that will last. Walnut trees—like other nut trees, as well as fruit trees and vineyards—are essentially permanent crops, so they can’t be ripped out cheaply or easily to be replaced with less thirsty things to grow, as some farmers in our area are now doing with their row crops. (See related story, p. 48.) And chickens, like other livestock, require a considerable amount of water to raise.
Now, farmers like Hain fear their water supply could be facing another threat—controversial high-intensity oil extraction operations, the most well known being fracking—that that are used to force oil and gas from deep within the ground.
“We’re in a seismically active area,” Hain says, referring to the San Andreas and Calaveras Faults, which run right through the county. “The chance of contaminating the aquifers is intolerable. All of these high-intensity extraction techniques require millions of gallons of water. They pollute it, then [sometimes] pump it 10,000 feet below the surface, where it’s out of circulation.”
Hain feels strongly enough about the issue that, along with local Ohlone tribal chairperson Ann-Marie Sayers, retired teacher Margaret Morales Rebecchi, city councilman Tony Boch and small business owner Jan Saxton, he filed a request with the county on March 4 that a ban on fracking and other high-intensity oil extraction and well stimulation methods—such as steam injection and acidization—be put to voters in November.
The campaign, being headed by a grassroots group called San Benito Rising, is putting little San Benito County (population 56,000) on the map. Between door-to-door canvassing and using local farmer Phil Foster of Pinnacle Organics’ popular Saturday morning farm stand as a sign up location, volunteers quickly gathered more than three times the signatures that they needed to put the initiative on the ballot, becoming on April 22 the first county in the state of California to do so.
The initiative also puts its backers in step with similar efforts around the state.
Locally, as of press time Santa Cruz County had just become the first California county to ban fracking—and any other type of oil and gas development—and Monterey County’s planning board had recommended that the county board of supervisors adopt a fracking moratorium. Elsewhere, fracking ban initiatives were being pursued in Butte, Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties, and a fracking moratorium was working its way through the state legislature.“We can live without oil, but we can’t live without water,” says Joe Morris, owner of the San Juan Bautista cattle ranch, Morris Grassfed Beef, stating the concerns of many in the most elemental terms.
Drilling is already underway near Pinnacles National Park. Hoping to extract some of the more than 100 million barrels of oil estimated to exist at the site, Citadel Exploration Inc. of Newport Beach has begun drilling exploratory wells using steam extraction, otherwise known as cyclic steam injection, which can pull 15% to 40% of difficult- to-extract heavy oil from the ground.
Citadel’s chief executive officer, Armen Nahabedian, a fourth-generation California oil and gas explorer and a former marine and Iraq war veteran who has become oil exploration’s local promoter and spokesman, argues that his operation is good for San Benito County. “This initiative [to ban high-intensity oil extraction] defeats economic growth in San Benito County,” Nahabedian says. “We’re trying to bring jobs. We’ve already spent nearly half a million dollars on a single well that we’ve drilled to date and we look forward to bringing prosperity to the area.”
But supporters of the 10-point San Benito ban initiative argue that most of any windfalls created by the wells would be short-term and go mainly to oil companies and mineral rights speculators.
In fact, a 2013 USC study projected that state-wide, extraction of the Monterey shale could bring in billions of new tax revenues and stimulate economic growth, creating as many as 2.8 million jobs. But the report also suggests the job creation would peak just six years from now, in 2020.
San Benito Rising’s supporters question how many local people would get jobs with the project, and argue that accepting the air pollution and risk of contamination associated with the techniques could cost the county its most important assets—the farming and tourism that are the backbone of its economy, and the water on which they depend. They also fear the oil operations could gamble away the county’s chances for pursuing more sustainable development.
“The risk-reward is not there,” says Randall Grahm, CEO of Boony Doon Vineyard, which planted a new vineyard in the county in 2011. “The benefits are minimal if at all, and the risk is quite high and potentially catastrophic.”
But to oil and gas companies, SBC and our broader region could be a petroleum gold mine. The Monterey Shale runs from Orange County up to Ukiah in Mendocino County. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Monterey Shale holds more oil than Texas and North Dakota—about 15.4 billion barrels. But extracting oil and natural gas from this shale requires complicated extreme extraction methods.
“Both Hollister and San Juan Bautista sit on top of prime oil reserves,” says Mary Hsia-Coron, a retired Hewlett Packard employee and member of San Benito Rising. “Throughout San Benito County, there are 336 oil and gas wells, 28 of which are active, so we are on the front line.”
Fracking is especially worrisome in drought-prone areas. The amount of water needed to frack one well runs between 4–6 million gallons. Breaking up the shale requires the addition of chemicals such as benzene, toluene and 2-butoxyethanol that are known to cause cancer. Only about 10–30% of this water comes back to the surface with the extracted gas. Known as flowback or produced water, this water is highly toxic and needs to undergo an involved treatment process or be injected into wells deep within the ground
Citadel has been granted rights to use 17.5 million gallons of San Benito County water over five years, but Nahabedian argues that the technique he uses is relatively benign, and that the produced water can be treated to actually help alleviate drought and assist farmers. The company also says it will use a closed-loop system to minimize its water use. “My project specifically uses steam injection, which is just putting hot water into the formation similar to what they’re already doing at the San Ardo Oil Field [in Monterey County],” Nahabedian says.
“There’s already been 3,000 wells drilled. The Salinas River cuts right through the center of that oil field and from the down flow of that river there is $4.1 billion of agriculture every year that comes off of that flow. So to say that agriculture and oil and gas cannot co-exist and thrive together is ridiculous.”
But others say the steam injection process has its own problems, and a lack of contamination at San Ardo doesn’t prevent it from happening in San Benito County.
Steam injection raises underground temperatures to 500° F, essentially melting the oil to make it flow. While it doesn’t use the same chemicals that fracking does, the oil and naturally occurring contaminants found deep within drill sites can contaminate produced water, and if leaks or spills occur, aquifers as well.
In some parts of the country, where high-intensity extraction techniques are being used to pump natural gas that could replace coal and oil—which generate more greenhouse gases when burned than natural gas—an argument can be made from an environmental standpoint that at least the high-intensity technique is being used to produce a lesser of the evils. But not so with the heavy oil that lies beneath San Benito County.
“Steam injection is the most greenhouse gas-intensive form of oil production in the world,” says Katie Davis, a trained presenter with former vice president Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and a volunteer with Water Guardians, the group leading the fracking ban initiative in Santa Barbara County.
“What is special with steam injection is the potential to create sinkholes when super-heated steam injected deep underground to loosen up oil finds its way to the surface,” says Catherine Gautier, professor emerita with UC Santa Barbara’s Geography department and a co-author of a 2013 academic book on fracking and shale extraction. Not only can eruptions associated with the sinkholes send rocks and steam shooting out of the ground, she adds, “it is also possible that once the viscosity of the oil has been sufficiently reduced for the oil to flow, leaks are created through which heavy crude mixed with water flows to the surface in an unstoppable way. Such spills can last days and weeks and can eventually leak into underground reservoirs.” An example of such a steam extraction-related spill can be found in Canada’s Cold Lake, Alberta, and contamination of farmland by a steam extraction project, in Kern County, California.
And this spring, new reports tied high-intensity extraction with earthquakes in Ohio, and a county court jury in Wise County, Texas, ordered Aruba Petroleum to pay a local family $2.3 million in damages for contaminating their ranch and making them sick with its high-intensity petroleum pumping project.
Concerns about possible contamination in San Benito County are all the more acute because its struggling economy, heritage and identity are so deeply rooted in agriculture and tourism.
More than 80% of San Benito County’s unincorporated land is used for farming and rangeland, the fracking ban initiative notes, and preserving the county’s “rural atmosphere” and protecting its agricultural lands and agriculture’s place as a “major industry” in the county have long been part of the county’s general plan.
The county’s farmland is also not just any farmland. Some 25% of it is organic—much higher than the 1% national average—and it is dotted with heirloom orchards and renowned wineries like Calera Wine Co. The county is also home to the majestic Pinnacles National Park, two state parks, a famous mission and the noted theater company, El Teatro Campesino. So it’s not a surprise that the county is working to promote itself as a destination for foodie and environmentally minded travelers—just last year adding an olive festival to its calendar of attractions.
“Our area is such a vibrant agriculture and tourist economy,” says Andrew Hsia-Coron, a retired teacher and a San Benito Rising organizer. “We are poised to be a green ecotourism destination,” one, he adds, that can create jobs. “Do we want to sacrifice all that to get a resource that further perils our existence?”
Instead, San Benito Rising is advocating that the county promote sustainable enterprise, and that San Juan Bautista, in particular, become a model green city. Their example is the successful conversion of Varese Ligure, a small city in northern Italy. That effort, according to Andrew, not only created many jobs but also boosted its tourism business by 400%.
Meanwhile, in April, the California Independent Petroleum Association, an industry trade group, sent a letter to the San Benito County government, threatening legal action if the ban were to be adopted. However, Catherine Engberg, an attorney for Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, a leading northern California environmental law firm that is representing San Benito Rising, says she is confident that the initiative itself addresses the association’s concerns and that the oil industry’s threats lack merit.
For people like Gautier, the UC Santa Barbara climatologist, the high-intensity extraction question is one that goes well beyond the confines of the counties now considering bans.
“Of all the things we can do locally in regard to climate change, this would have the highest impact and is critically important at this time,” she wrote in an opinion piece in the Santa Barbara Independent on April 22, referring to Santa Barbara County’s anti-fracking initiative. “The stakes could not be greater. Our actions now will determine the future livability of the planet.”
For both sides of the San Benito debate, the topic is also personal. “The last 7½ years I’ve been working on this project, I’ve become a big fan of the area. I would love to bring my family here. And it’s something I have no intent of ever fouling,” says Citadel’s Nahabedian. On the other side, Hain Ranch Organics’ Paul Hain thinks about his great grandfather, Schuyler Colefax Hain, who was the homesteader whose tenacity—and poetry—helped convince Theodore Roosevelt to act to protect the Pinnacles in what was first called the Pinnacles Forest Reserve in 1906.
Hain notes that the area where Citadel is already drilling is close to the Pinnacles and its endangered Condors, on which so many millions of dollars have already been spent to protect.
“These techniques are energy intensive for what you get,” Hain says, referring to the high-intensity oil extraction methods. “Maybe they should put their energy into alternative sources instead of milking the cow that’s almost dry.”
Lis Bensley is a college counselor at Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School in Santa Cruz. She has written for The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Fine Cooking, Kitchen Gardens and other national magazines as well as coauthoring The Women’s Health Cookbook (Penguin, 1988).