Every morning, just after breakfast, Joe Morris heads out to check the water for his herd of 130 pasture-raised cattle. This year, thanks to California’s extreme drought, the creeks on his property have run dry.
“A herd of cattle without water is not a pretty sight,” says Morris, a rancher who has practiced holistic management of the water and soil on his family’s San Juan Bautista ranch since 1991.
Morris Grassfed Beef is part of a large network of organic ranches, farms, and vineyards in San Benito County, a rural enclave just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, where farming is a way of life. Earthbound Farms, the largest industrial grower of organic produce in the U.S. is located here, along with dozens of smaller operations that produce much of the local meat, vegetables, and fruit relied upon by chefs and restaurants in nearby urban areas. All these farms rely on water, but the drought isn’t their only concern. Farmers and ranchers like Morris also worry that the area’s precious water might go toward hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the county.
As one of two counties with fracking bans on the local ballot this November, San Benito County has also become the site of a heated political battle between oil companies and anti-fracking ranchers, farmers, and residents. A similar fight is going down in Santa Barbara County, where oil companies have funneled $7.6 million into a campaign against Measure P, a citizen’s ballot initiative that would ban future high-intensity petroleum operations on unincorporated county land.
Earlier this month, actor and well-known “fracktivist” Mark Ruffalo tweeted: “Hollister (the county seat) is ground zero in the California fracking fight.” And while famous actors aren’t always considered the best source for real talk on climate legislation, Ruffalo is right.
Last spring, more than 4,000 local voters signed a petition for a citizen’s initiative that would ban all high-intensity petroleum operations throughout the county. Citing a desire to protect the quantity and quality of groundwater reserves as well as the “health, safety, welfare, and quality of life of county residents,” Measure J ultimately aims to preserve the rural character of a place where 80 percent of unincorporated land is used for rangeland or agricultural operations worth $330 million. In May 2014, county supervisors approved the measure for the November ballot. With that, San Benito became the first county in California where voters get a chance to decide on the future of oil where they live.
If approved, Measure J would permanently ban hydraulic fracturing, acid well stimulation treatments, and cyclic steam injection. It would also prohibit petroleum operations on or near rural residential land. Existing conventional oil wells, or future operations, that utilize conventional, low-intensity methods (there are about 20 in the county) would not be affected.
The citizen’s initiative in San Benito County follows a semi-successful grassroots effort to ban fracking in New York, where the Marcellus Shale, which is rich with untapped natural gas reserves, stretches below prime agricultural land and pristine watersheds. Activists, residents, farmers, and ranchers there fought long and hard to get the moratorium on fracking in place. But it’s a tenuous win, and one that depends on pending environmental reports and the goodwill of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Measure J has already inspired similar initiatives around the state. After consulting with members of the Coalition to Protect San Benito, Santa Barbara County anti-fracking activists put their previously mentioned controversial ban on the county ballot. In Monterey County, county supervisors are also considering a ban, and have imposed a two-year moratorium in the meantime.
Joe Morris, a past president of the San Benito County Cattlemen’s Association, supports Measure J. “There’s no reason that I see to put our groundwater at risk for the last dregs of the oil that may or may not be under San Benito County rangelands,” he says.
The dregs of oil to which Morris refers are located within the vast Monterey Shale, an ancient rock formation spanning 1,750 square-miles and running underneath much of California’s prime farmland, from Sacramento to Los Angeles. The shale was once thought to hold around 13.7 billion barrels of oil, a discovery that led to fevered frenzy by oil companies looking to profit from a North Dakota Bakken Shale-type boom. But in May 2014, the buzz died down a bit, after a new report from federal energy authorities said that most of that oil, could never been extracted thanks to earthquake-mangled rock. Current estimates have been downgraded to around 600 million barrels.
The ranchers and farmers in the area have heard the stories coming out of North Dakota, where ranchers living near Bakken Shale drill sites have experienced contaminated wells, dead and sick cattle, unexplained rashes and respiratory distress. They’ve heard the stories and data out of Pennsylvania, where crime rates and incidences of chemically polluted water have increased in some shale boomtowns. They also know that drilling a single well can use up to a million gallons of water, most of which gets infused with fracking chemicals and, thus, must be taken out of the natural water cycle.
“We’re entirely dependent on ground water in the county,” says Andy Hsia-Coron, a founder of The Coalition to Protect San Benito, which is pushing for Measure J. If this water is contaminated, he says, “it really undermines everything that we are building our future on–agriculture and tourism.”
The Central Valley Regional Water Board recently confirmed that at least nine wastewater disposal wells in Kern County—a large ag-rich county in Southern California where fracking has gone on for decades—have “been dumping oil industry waste into aquifers that are legally protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.” This is according to letters uncovered by The Center for Biological Diversity from the State Water Resources Control Board to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the findings, multiple wells, which provide surrounding communities with drinking water—and happen to be near injection sites—were found to contain elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals such as arsenic, thallium, and nitrates.
Oil companies are fighting to keep open the possibility of drilling in San Benito. Chevron, Aera, and Exxon-Mobil, through a political action committee called Californians for Energy Independence, have donated more than $1.7 million to the No on Measure J campaign. According to campaign finance information, very little of the funding for the No on Measure J campaign, so far, has come from San Benito residents. At the same time, the campaign has gained endorsements from the San Benito Cattlemen’s Association, the county farm bureau, and a group of ranchers and farmers who have expressed worry at seeing their mineral and property rights curtailed by the ban. Conversely, Yes on Measure J efforts had raised about $120,000 as of October 1; 11 percent came from non-profit environmental groups.
So why have oil companies invested more than a million dollars to get a fracking ban overturned in a tiny county with only 24,000 registered voters?
Some, like Hsia-Coron, argue that the county is considered a political bellwether for the rest of California, because of its history of matching statewide voter sentiment around candidates and issues. In other words, what happens there, could happen in other counties.
“If we stand up and say we don’t want fracking, it’s quite likely that will spread to other regions,” says Hsia-Coron. “The oil industry knows this and they are afraid we will start a democratic contagion.”
Paul Hain, a third-generation organic walnut farmer who raises pastured chicken and turkeys on a 30-acre ranch in the northern part of the county, agrees.
“The vast majority of organic farmers in the county support banning fracking,” says Hain. While the oil industry has said that they have no intention of starting up high-intensity operations in the county, explains Hain, the goal is to be proactive and to prevent the speculation before it starts.
“It’s a domino effect and we are at the beginning of the line,” he adds. “It’s about starting a wave that Big Oil does not want to take hold. They want to squelch it here and keep doing what they do.”
Photo at the top: Morris Grassfed Ranch by Richard Morgenstein.