SALINAS, California (Reuters) - Hydraulic fracturing has brought together greens and growers in California through a shared concern about the impact of the practice on water in a state where it is often in short supply.
The strawberry industry lined up alongside environmentalists to voice their fears over fracking at a public hearing in Salinas at the Steinbeck Institute, named for a renowned author whose writing immortalized the region's agricultural history.
Fracking, or pumping chemical-laced water and sand into a well to open cracks that release oil and gas, has generated a fierce U.S. debate, leading to bans in one state and several municipalities. Yet the industry insists the practice is safe so long as wells are properly constructed.
California officials are on a tour to gather feedback from communities that may be affected by it, with plans to issue draft rules on fracking within three to four months.
"Farmers and environmentalists may not always see eye to eye, but we all rely on clean water," said Jonathan Evans of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. "When you have the greens and growers speaking out on the dangers of fracking, it's time for the regulators to sit up and listen."
Jason Marshall, deputy head of California's Department of Conservation, said the latest workshop on the subject was the first to hear from the state's strawberry growers, who supply an estimated 88 percent of the U.S. crop.
"If there's a spill on their field, nobody's going to buy from them," Carolyn O'Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission, speaking for the growers, told the hearing on Wednesday night in Salinas.
The city is located at the northern end of Monterey County, which captures just part of the vast Monterey shale formation - estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to hold 15 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, or four times that of the Bakken formation in North Dakota.
The Monterey shale was among the areas mentioned by the EIA this week when it forecast that U.S. production of such "tight" oil would double by 2035.
California is among the oldest U.S. sources of oil, with production going back to the late 19th century, but the industry is in long-term decline, falling by half since the mid-1980s.
Agriculture, on the other hand, remains a lucrative part of its economy, as well as a potent political force. About $4 billion in revenue was generated by agriculture in Monterey County alone in 2011, said Jocelyn Gretz, who has a masters in water management and now works for farmers in Salinas.
Tim Kustic, the state's oil and gas supervisor, told the meeting that most frack jobs of conventional California wells used no more than 500,000 gallons of water - which he compared with the 650,000 gallons that fill an Olympic swimming pool.
Such fracking has taken place in the state for 30 years, but there is more concern when it is combined with the "unconventional" practice of drilling horizontally through the reservoir.
A report on nationwide water usage in fracking by the Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute, which came out last week, said estimates varied from 2 million to 13 million gallons of water per well that was fracked and unconventionally drilled.
The combination of the two techniques is what opened up shale basins nationwide, and Marshall of the Department of Conservation said the potential for unconventional drilling in the state was a big reason for revisiting the regulations.
But given the level of public scrutiny, Marshall did not expect new rules to be finalized until mid-2013. As for state legislation to halt fracking, it has received little support.
"Most of the people in our area are not adamantly opposed to fracking as much as we are opposed to fracking without any additional information," said Paula Getzleman, co-owner of Tre Gatti Vineyards in southern Monterey County, where Venoco Inc has been active.
At least three exploratory wells had been drilled several miles away from her property, Getzleman said in a phone interview, though it was close to a vital local watershed. "Any spoiling of that water is going to affect everyone," she added.
Occidental Petroleum Corp is actively targeting the Monterey shale, though most of its acreage is over the hills in Kern County - the traditional home of the state's oil business.
Reporting by Braden Reddall in Salinas; Editing by Patricia Kranz and Phil Berlowitz