Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

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By Betsy Weber, Environmental Defense Center

Pressure is mounting on the five members of the State Water Board (“Board”) to make the right choice between clean water or dirty oil in Santa Barbara County.  Safeguarding the quality of Californians’ drinking water is the mission that guides this agency.  Yet, the Board now faces a decision on a proposal that could allow oil and gas operators to inject steam and millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into aquifers beneath the Cat Canyon Oil Field in Santa Barbara County.  Injections of oil field fluids threaten to contaminate groundwater used by County residents for drinking and agriculture.  Today, the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) submitted a letter on behalf of forty-six organizations asking the Board to direct its staff to reject the proposal and protect our state’s precious water supplies. 

Oil operators in the Cat Canyon Oil Field, including Aera Energy and ERG (now TerraCore), asked the State to apply for this exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.  These same two operators also propose to drill around 500 new wells directly through the groundwater basin in Cat Canyon and use risky steam injection techniques that threaten the water that local communities depend on for drinking.  In order to build out these projects at their immense scale, the oil companies need this exemption approved.  Since 2017, EDC, on behalf of our clients, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and Santa Barbara County Action Network (“SBCAN”), has been working to halt these projects.

Forty-six groups are united in opposition to sacrificing groundwater for the oil and gas industry.  Local, state, and national groups are jointly demanding that the Board not sign off on this proposal to exempt Cat Canyon oil operations from federal drinking water protections.  At the very least, the groups urge the Board to pause the process until a pending study by the U.S. Geological Survey of possible groundwater contamination in Cat Canyon is analyzed.  These requests have been echoed by esteemed political leaders, including California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Congressman Salud Carbajal.

“Once an aquifer is contaminated, it is almost impossible to clean,” said Tara Messing, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Defense Center. “Oil operators in Cat Canyon have been illegally injecting their toxic wastewater into non-exempt aquifers for years, potentially affecting water quality in a groundwater basin relied upon by hundreds of thousands of people. Right now, the State Water Board has the opportunity to make the right choice for our communities and environment: do not go forward with this aquifer exemption and avoid catalyzing a massive expansion of risky oil and gas operations in Cat Canyon.”

Local communities surrounding Cat Canyon, including Sisquoc and Los Alamos, rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water.  But, parts of the Cat Canyon Oil Field are already ranked among the top 1% for groundwater threats, heightening concerns about further degradation of groundwater if this aquifer exemption is approved. 

"Injection wells penetrate through the Basin to other deeper aquifers," said Ken Hough, Executive Director of SBCAN. "Well casings do fail from time to time, and in one instance, still under litigation, a wastewater injection well did fail, potentially releasing dangerous fluids into Santa Maria Valley's drinking water." Hough added.

“The State Water Board is the only backstop we have to protect the most important groundwater basin in our County used for agriculture and clean drinking water, " said Katie Davis, Chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter. "There is increasing evidence of the risks to water from steam injection and waste disposal, including in the adjacent Orcutt field, in Kern County, and in Ventura County, where there is currently a county moratorium on steam injection for health and safety reasons. We urge the Board not to sign off on this Safe Drinking Water exemption."

Through their letter, groups are shining a spotlight for the State Water Board to see the magnitude of its decision on this aquifer exemption, which could open the door for a tripling of onshore oil production in the County.  Safe, clean, and accessible drinking water for all must be held in higher regard than the oil industry’s bottom line.


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a-1591054222 May 21, 2020 09:33 PM
Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

I am glad you recognize the U.S. has over 1.6 million coronavirus cases and almost 100,000 deaths due to coronavirus. But did you stop to recognize what causes disease and pandemics.... pollution which leads to climate change...and did you stop to recognize that the oil industry has been polluting the planet since day one,...responsible for ridiculous amounts of emissions which has heat up he plant, polluted our air and water which causes disease and pandemic.. Again, comments are coming from the paid oil industry.

a-1591054222 May 21, 2020 08:31 PM
Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

Unfortunately, when you are busy saving lives (ie clean water), you end up also saving the lives of those who get paid to lie and provide misinformation. We all know the comments are coming from the paid oil industry...currently we have too much oil and there is no storage space for all the oil...oil cannot even be given away. If you are going to get paid, do something good that protects our water...no water no life...no oil, all just great!

a-1591054222 May 21, 2020 08:27 PM
Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

Unfortunately, when your busy saving lives (ie clean water), you end up also saving the lives of those who get paid to lie and provide misinformation. We all know the comments are coming from the paid oil industry...currently we have too much oil and there is no storage space for all the oil...oil cannot even be given away. If you are going to get paid, do something good that protects our water...no water no life...no oil, all just great!

a-1591054222 May 21, 2020 03:54 PM
Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

Betsy, does the EDC continue quietly work with "Big Oil" in exchange for $$/favors/projects like they have in the past? Years ago (10 years or so) I read the following AP article that was in Cal Coast News: ..............."Three major Santa Barbara environmental groups allegedly agreed to support a controversial offshore oil drilling project in 2008, in exchange for $100,000 and other benefits. ///////The confidential agreement involved Plains Exploration & Production and local environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Center. According to a copy of the agreement, obtained by an investigative reporting web site in Sacramento, the three groups, previously opposed to offshore drilling, agreed to lobby on behalf of the Tranquillon Ridge project, intended for off the coast of Santa Barbara.//////////////The three groups endorsed the proposed drilling project in 2008. In return, Plains agreed to a $100,000 donation, plus an additional donation of 3,900 acres to the Trust for Public Land, and another $1.5 million to a fund for hybrid buses.///////////As part of the secret agreement, the three environmental groups agreed to lobby in writing for the project and testify at public hearings before Santa Barbara County and the California Coastal Commission. The groups were to be paid $50,000 in advance and $50,000 upon final approval of all the oil leases.//////

PitMix May 22, 2020 10:34 PM
Op-Ed: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

This ancient story was an attempt to allow the oil industry to slant drill from shore in return for obsoleting the offshore oil platforms. In a practical sense, EDC was willing to accept a small project in return for getting rid of a much larger project. The people attacking them for this on Edhat are not environmentalists who hate their ideological impurity, but pro-oil people that are just looking for ways to attack them. Seems hypocritical to me.

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