Kern County may be sitting on top of the largest oil reserve in the nation. The Monterey Shale holds an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil, but bringing all of that oil to the surface has some people concerned, especially since it might require the controversial process of fracking.
It's called the Monterey Shale, but a lot of it is right here in Kern County in a tightly packed formation, which means companies will most likely need to frack. That possibility has some concerned for the groundwater and the potential for more earthquakes.
Just outside Shafter, a new oil well is being drilled. It's one of dozens that has popped up in the area in the last few years.
"You know, they move these rigs around every week. They drill one well and they're starting the next one," said Tom Frantz, President of the Association of Irritated Residents.
There are plenty of older wells around Shafter, but these are different. They are deeper, as much as 9,000 feet, and they're most likely drilling into the Monterey Shale formation, requiring more than a pump to extract oil.
"The only way to make it a producible well is, you have to stimulate the reservoir by hydraulic fracturing," said Mike Handren, San Joaquin Valley Operations Manager for PXP.
Traditional wells draw from oil soaked sand deposits. The shale the Monterey is made of is 100 times more dense than that sand. It's almost solid, and getting the oil from it requires a different technology. It's called fracking.
"You take that rock that is very finely grained and had limited ability for anything to flow through it, and you create a pathway for the oil to flow," said Handren.
Here's how it works. After a well is drilled a combination of water, sand, and chemicals is pumped into the well at high pressure to create fractures or cracks. This allows the oil to flow, a simple process, but one that has generated public concern.
"In the past, it was never what they call on the radar screen. Now it's smack in the middle of the radar screen," said Randy Adams, former district deputy for the Bakersfield Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
Out near Shafter, Occidental Petroleum Corporation is fracking.
"I'm afraid something is going to happen," said almond farmer Tom Frantz, who shot video of a well being fracked. He's worried the cracks will cause earthquakes and the chemicals will seep into the water table.
"This could ruin us," said Frantz. "We would have to move away if the groundwater got too bad."
He's especially worried since drilling is happening a quarter mile from an elementary school.
"In the end, a lot of this oil is best left under the ground," said Frantz.
Fracking isn't a new concept in Kern County. In fact, it's been done for 50 years, mostly in the South Belridge oil field.
"It's been going on for decades with no reportable adverse impacts that I'm aware of or that the division is aware of," said Adams.
Adams was in charge of monitoring fracking wells in Kern County for 30 years.
"We were aware of it and we would kind of watch it and we never had any reports of any sort of damage out there," said Adams.
"No reportable issues, well, they've never had to report them so who knows what the issues are," said Gordon Nipp, Vice Chair of the Sierra Club, Kern-Kaweah Chapter.
That's because right now companies only have to get a permit to drill. There are no special requirements for fracking, but that's about to change. DOGGR is in the process of coming up with regulations and it discussed them at a hearing in Sacramento last week.
"This is a very draft early review of what we are thinking we would submit," said Jason Marshall, Chief Deputy Director of the Department of Conservation, at the hearing.
The rules would require disclosure of fracking processes and most chemicals and tests before, during, and after the process. But, concerned citizens want stricter regulations.
"A moratorium on fracking while we discuss these issues is not a radical policy," said Andrew Grinberg, Oil and Gas Program Coordinator for Clean Water Action.
Others think we should let the success of fracking in Kern County be our guide.
"Why would we want to layer on regulations? They are just more expensive and that stretches our money so we can't do more for the areas we need to focus on," said State Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield.
With a potential 15 billion barrels of oil that may be fracked from the Monterey Shale, many say the time to set standards is now.
"It's not just everybody out there trying to make as much money as possible," said Nipp. "That's a nice thing I suppose, but you have to be able to lead a good existence."
"If done properly, as with anything, if done properly, I don't think there's any potential damage to the aquifer or public health, public safety," said Adams.
The Division of Oil and Gas plans to hold three hearings across the state about fracking. One of those hearings is expected to be in Bakersfield. That date is yet to be set.