By now, due to footage from the northeastern United States of methane-soaked wells catching fire and kitchen faucets spewing chunky brown water, “fracking” has become a bad word nationwide. It’s industry slang for hydraulic fracturing, a practice developed in the 1940s and revolutionized in the 1990s, in which oil companies extract hard-to-reach fuel resources by drilling deep holes, dropping mini bombs, and then pumping in a cocktail of water, sand, and toxic, safe, and unknown chemicals to break up the earth and release the oil. The problem is that the fluid doesn’t just evaporate. Instead, it’s contaminating farms, wells, and aquifers, and has the potential to poison the water supply.
With conventional drilling options drying up fast, Santa Barbara County could be a hotbed for a new wave of fracking, thanks in large part to the underground shale formations that can be tapped by the method. That realization, triggered by evidence of fracking near agricultural land in Los Alamos, caused the Board of Supervisors in December 2011 to mandate that all future fracking practices on unincorporated county land be reviewed and approved. But finding out where fracking occurred prior to that date is nearly impossible because the State of California does not require companies to reveal the location or number of wells. Even more troubling for many people is that neither the state nor the federal government requires oil companies to divulge what they’re pumping into the soil, a mixture that investigative reports have discovered may include everything from run-of-the-mill toxins like lead and formaldehyde to known cancer causers arsenic and benzene to radioactive substances such as radon and uranium.
Set against a backdrop of government-approved confidentiality, a landscape of undisclosed sites, and a very real set of lethal stakes, it’s no wonder that rumors about where fracking might be happening are swirling. So in an attempt to cut through the haze — and based on the latest academic publications, industry communications, and anecdotal accounts — what follows is a quick tour of where fracking could have and may one day occur in Santa Barbara County.
The buzz about fracking in Santa Barbara County started in early 2011 when officials learned that Carpinteria-based Venoco, Inc. was using the method on two wells 11,000 or so feet deep off of Highway 135 near Vandenberg Air Force Base. Extra controversy ensued when it was discovered that the fracking occurred on leases without the knowledge of property owners.
One of those was Steve Lyons, whose Kick On Ranch features a vineyard of riesling grapes that are coveted by such celebrated vintners as Tatomer, The Ojai Vineyard, and Municipal Winemakers. Lyons claims that Venoco’s fracking endangered his grapes, well water, and livelihood, explaining that a pipeline to dispose toxic liquid waste ran through his vines. He believes that the water his family drinks is unsafe and would like to see further cleanup.
Though the science is not yet conclusive on whether food and drink made from agriculture exposed to fracking fluid is unsafe, the fracking cleanup business has blossomed in hopes of a second-wave oil rush, with one Texas waste company purchasing a fracking cleanup company for $1.3 billion.
A few miles south of the Kick On Ranch lies Bedford Winery, whose owner Stephan Bedford believes that the nearby fracking jobs are a threat not only to his grapes but to the entire Central Coast wine industry, and worries that a higher-than-usual amount of truck traffic on Highway 135 is related to increased oil production. According to attorney Nathan Alley of the Environmental Defense Center, the increased traffic might be related to cyclic steam injection, another form of advanced oil recovery designed to get at hard-to-reach shale oil that uses brine water that may be filled with toxic substances.
When asked about the suspicions of Bedford, Lyons, and Alley, Venoco spokesperson Lisa Rivas would only confirm that the company had fracked “three wells in north Santa Barbara County in 2011” and would not provide their exact locations.
Up the road toward the town of Orcutt, the best information on fracking comes from academia. In 2002, scientists from Stanford University wrote a detailed paper in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering about the geology and engineering of a Nuevo Energy frack job in the Orcutt Hill Oil Field right outside the city limits. Nuevo Energy is now owned by Plains Exploration & Production (PXP), whose regional headquarters sits squarely in the middle of Orcutt’s quaint old town.
By Paul Wellman (file)