Oil

Saturday, May 03 2014 08:58 PM

Technical problems turn film screening into fracking debate

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    An image from "Gasland Part II" offered to the media from gaslandthemovie.com.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The film screening inside a Bakersfield church hall was never intended to be a community forum about fracking.

But because of one technical problem after another, and a few restive oil and gas industry people in the audience, there was almost no avoiding it.

So planned or not, Saturday afternoon's unsuccessful showing of filmmaker Josh Fox's anti-fracking movie "Gasland Part II" turned into what may have been the most open fracking debate in Bakersfield history.

There were indications ahead of time that this might happen, despite the efforts of organizers with the environmental groups Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and Earthworks.

The oil industry learned of the event at St. Paul's Episcopal Church and made plans to "fill the seats with pro-industry people," according to an industry email that ended up being posted on the Internet Thursday. Ultimately, though, there were more than enough seats for everyone, and both sides were well represented.

During an intermission brought on by a series of computer malfunctions, the meeting of more than 60 people developed into a polite but passionate back-and-forth about fracking's merits and drawbacks.

Hydraulic fracturing, an oil field technique used for decades in Kern County, injects water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to open oil and gas reserves. Environmentalists say it carries air and groundwater pollution risks, while oil companies assert there is no evidence of actual contamination.

A state law that took effect Jan. 1 imposed California's first fracking-specific rules, which industry blames for recent layoffs in Kern County. Many environmental groups say stricter regulations are needed, and they are pushing for a fracking moratorium now before state lawmakers.

Event coordinators took the technical glitches as an opportunity to hear from environmentalists.

A local organizer with Clean Water Action, Rosanna Esparza, said her group is neutral on oil production itself, and certainly doesn't want to kill jobs. But she said it does want to ensure clean air and water.

Two other local environmental activists took the microphone next, calling for vigilance in the face of Kern's busy oil industry and a dearth of public information about its activities.

That's when Bakersfield oil engineer Daryl Curtis, sitting near the front row, raised his hand.

Suddenly, an assistant minister at St. Paul's, the Rev. Deborah DeBoer, was put in the position of moderating a debate. Asking only for civility, she called on several in the audience to take the microphone at the front of the hall.

Curtis was first up. He acknowledged, without going into specifics, that some local oil companies don't do their work very well, though others do. He said fracking can be done safely, and that Gasland doesn't present the industry's perspective fairly.

Another industry supporter, Dave Quast, California director at Energy In Depth, said he supports vigorous regulations, "but it's also important to tell the truth" about fracking.

Quast quipped that Saturday's computer trouble may have resulted from "the karma of using fossil fuels to run these things."

Activists on the other side of the issue voiced support for the proposed moratorium, Senate Bill 1132.

Bakersfield's Mary Helen Barro accused the oil and gas industry of being disingenuous, saying they had to be aware of problems related to fracking.

"There are people that cannot drink their water," she said. "That's the bottom line."

Two hours into the event, at about 7 p.m., it became clear the movie would not be shown in its entirety. At that point a man who appears in the film, the former mayor of Dish, Texas, Calvin Tillman, spoke to the audience.

Tillman had left the town in 2011 when his young sons started having bad nosebleeds he attributed to nearby fracking in the Barnett Shale.

Thanking industry people for showing up, he called on oil companies to deal fairly with victims of fracking.

"One of the things that we need to have is an open and honest discussion on energy," he said.

DeBoer thanked everyone for coming then asked for help putting away chairs.

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