Fracking farmland in California has the potential to upset california's agricultural industry

A farmworker works next to a fracking operation in Shafter, CA. (Credit: Jose Luis Villegas/ The Sacramento Bee)

For over 50 years, California has been the top agricultural state in the nation. California’s moderate Mediterranean climate, coupled with the state’s fertile soil and diverse land resources, allows year round production of many commodities. California agriculture is a $43 billion industry that produces more commodities than any other state in the country.1  California is one of the nation’s biggest food suppliers, growing nearly half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Recently, oil companies have been expanding their fracking operations to California’s prime agricultural regions and nearby some of the most productive agriculture in the world. In addition, the Monterey Shale lies directly beneath some of the most fertile land in South and Central California. Fracking farmland and its surroundings has the potential to impact agriculture in a number of ways:

Water Contamination

Surface water pollution from drilling and fracking can occur with leaks, blowouts and other accidents at the sites of a shale well, spills from traffic accidents while fracking wastewater is being trucked to disposal sites, or spills from the intentional and illegal dumping of fracking wastewater.  If exposed, farmers’ crops and livestock would be endangered as contaminated water carries several toxic and carcinogenic agents. Read more about water contamination.

Farmed Fred Starrh stands in his almond orchards. Fracking farmland causes his almond trees to die.

Fred Starrh stands in his almond orchards. (Source: Todd D’Addario/High Country News)

Soil Contamination

Soil can be contaminated by wastewater returned to the surface, which often includes radioactive materials, including strontium, uranium, and radon, and heavy metals which can contaminate the soil through spills, leaks, or during venting and airing.  Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, barium, and arsenic have been found in soils near fracking sites.  Farmer Fred Starrh (right) says improper storage of produced water contaminated the ground water he used for his crops. He was awarded $8.5 million in a settlement with Aera Energy, short of the billions he says it would take to repair his aquifer. Learn more about fracking lawsuits.

Livestock Health Effects

The produced water that flows up during the fracking process creates a salty taste attractive to livestock and wildlife. Animals can be exposed to poisonous fracking fluid through fracking fluid spills and/or contaminated water. Animal poisoning can results in death or loss of normal reproductive function, stillbirths, birth defects, and other health problems.2 Light and noise pollution from fracking wells can also increase stress for livestock.3

Air Emissions

Many of the chemicals used in the fracking process, including methanol, are hazardous air pollutants. In addition, fracking is a highly industrial process that increases ground level ozone. Ozone damages plants by inhibiting photosynthesis and root development.  Ozone dramatically harms the productivity of cultivated land. In just one example—ozone caused an estimated $2 billion in losses of U.S. soybean production, approximately 10% of the total crop.4

Cost of Water

Given projected sharp increases in production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water have been a growing concern.  There have been reported cases of fracking causing water shortages in local communities across the country as competition over water has caused driven up the cost. New oil wells could impact the price of water by making water an even more scarce resource. Learn more about water competition.

Land Rights

In many parts of California, ownership of land and ownership of minerals underground are two separate entitlements, also known as a ‘split estate’.  A split estate happens when a person owns the surface of a piece of land, but not the resources underneath such as oil and gas. That means a private energy company, or the government, in cases of publicly owned mineral rights, can obtain authorization to frack a landowner’s property without their consent.  This can greatly affect farming in California’s Central Valley, since significant portions of farmland are split estates that sit atop of the Monterey Shale formation.

Contaminated food could have nation-wide effects, as California’s fruits, vegetables and meat are shipped all over the country.  While there has been little research done about the impact that fracking can have on food grown in California, studies have been conducted in other states that look at the potential impacts of fracking on farming.

Food and Agriculture Studies

Title Publication Authors Year Findings
Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania Earthworks Nadia Steinzor and Alan Septoff 2012 Found contaminants associated with oil and gas development are present in air and water in many communities where development is occurring.
Hormones and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses Endocrine Reviews Thomas Zoeller and John Peterson Myers 2012 Identified 649 chemicals used during natural gas production and found that at least 130 of those could affect the endocrine system. They include petroleum distillates, methanol and other, more obscure compounds with names like dibromoacetonitrile and ethoxylated nonylphenol.
Impact of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health New Solutions Robert Oswald, Michelle Bamberger 2012 Found that the process of hydraulic fracturing may be linked to shortened lifespan and reduced or mutated reproduction in cattle. The study documented hundreds of cows dying as well as stillborn and stunted calves after exposure to hydraulic fracturing spills.
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