With a unanimous vote of support, the Santa Barbara County Supervisors made official this week a series of long-discussed regulatory tweaks for onshore oil drilling in hopes of getting a better handle on any would-be “fracking” efforts in the county. Caught off guard this past summer when they found out that Venoco Energy Inc. had fracked an existing oil lease near Los Alamos, the supes directed county staff to work with industry stakeholders to develop a petroleum code update that would build in certain requirements that would force oil operators interested in fracking to first seek specific approval from the county. “On this issue, there is just so much gray area; I think we want to err on the side of caution,” opined 5th District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino shortly before the votes were cast. “[With these new changes,] I feel confident that we now have the proper permitting path in place that will let folks sleep a little better at night.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short, is a long-used but increasingly controversial oil-extraction technique that injects a mixture of water and various potentially toxic chemicals into an oil well to help maximize the outflow of crude. Critics fear that fracking has the very real potential to, among other things, nefariously impact water tables — a worry that is only heightened by a perceived lack of frack-specific oversight by local, state, and federal regulatory agencies. Petroleum-industry advocacy groups maintain that fracking, when done correctly, poses no greater an environmental risk than other types of oil-harvesting methods.
As per their freshly approved changes, the county now requires that any drillers looking to frack must file an Oil Drilling and Production Plan that specifically requests permission to frack, the latter being granted by the Energy Division’s director only after a site visit is conducted and other potential environmental impacts are examined. Further, for operators who already have a Production Plan on file with the county but have previously not been interested in fracking, should they ever want to frack, they first must apply for a formal plan “change.” Lastly, a final rule tweak approved on Tuesday now requires that an oil company about to engage in fracking must provide County Fire with a list of any hazardous materials or chemicals that it may store on-site prior to actually doing so. Previously, operators had to inform County Fire, but they had a 30-day grace period in which to do so.