Hooked on Frack?

Where Oil Companies Could Be Fracking in Santa Barbara County

Thursday, November 15, 2012
Article Tools
Print friendly
E-mail story
Tip Us Off
iPod friendly
Share Article

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.

Wine Country

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)

Venoco’s Platform Gail

Carpinteria Coast

With more rigs and other operations on the Carpinteria coastline, Venoco, Inc. touts its location atop a rich geological formation known as the Monterey Shale, which the company’s chief, Tim Marquez, told the Oil & Gas Financial Journal offered “the most exciting and promising opportunities at Venoco, and for that matter, the entire industry.” The company — which has admitted to fracking into the Ventura County seafloor off of Platform Gail — is advertising the potential value of the shale’s resources at $1.4 billion, recently posted job offers for shale experts, and, according to promotional literature, has executed a “multi well and multi $100 million” exploration of the formation.

That has Carpinteria residents worried, including former mayor Dick Weinberg and Miguel Checa of the Carpinteria Valley Association. Both report an increase in trucking activity in the Venoco area, which they believe is evidence of new types of drilling operations. Longtime Carp activist Ted Rhodes fears that, if the company does start fracking nearby, it could contaminate the city’s drinking water.

So, are Carpinteria’s concerns premature or prescient? “We do hold a lease offshore of Carpinteria,” said Venoco spokesperson Rivas when asked about plans for the area. “We have no final plans for developing that lease, but we are in discussions with multiple parties.”

Front-Country Foothills

The coast of Carpinteria isn’t the only target for possible fracking. According to the Environmental Defense Center, Occidental Petroleum fracked just a few miles south of the city in the Rincon Hills on May 2011, drilling 8,474 feet and using 360,000 gallons of water. Though Occidental did not reveal its Rincon fluid, the company did disclose some substances used in a frack job last year off the coast of Long Beach: the highly toxic and flammable chemical methanol and the carcinogenic 2-butoxyethanol.

Though the government protects fracking fluid ingredients as proprietary information, the oil-and-gas industry has started to self-report a fraction of its frack jobs through the website, on which 200 companies have listed 15,000 sites so far. But such information can be incomplete or inaccurate.

Take a FracFocus report by ExxonMobil that listed a site near Highway 154 above Foothill Road in Santa Barbara last January: After several emails to ExxonMobil, spokesperson David Eglinton explained that “the wrong longitude” was entered in the geographical mapping database and that ExxonMobil is not reporting any fracking locations in Santa Barbara County. He clarified that the frack job was actually in Kern County but gave no other information. The Foothill frack job is no longer displayed on FracFocus.

And even the few regulatory agencies that focus on fracking sometimes post inaccurate information. Recently, the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) showed on its website that Aera had a new water flow well, which can indicate fracking, offshore of Oxnard. Only after several calls and emails to Aera and the state’s Department of Conservation, which oversees the oil industry, was it learned that Aera had sold its offshore interests. The records have since been changed.

Federal oversight is also questionable. Two years after Venoco admitted fracking from Platform Gail, Nick Pardi of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore resources, explained, “There are no fracking operations occurring offshore California in federal waters.”

When even the regulators are ill-informed, it’s easy to see why trying to determine which company is fracking with what and where remains a difficult proposition. The steps taken by the County of Santa Barbara should help inform at least this region, and the California Department of Conservation’s ongoing development of fracking rules, which is still open for public input, will also help. But with billions of dollars to be made and plenty of oil needed to make the world go ’round, fracking will certainly continue into the future.

Natalie Cherot is a reporter with and can be reached at


Independent Discussion Guidelines

The image created and used for this article could serve to mislead persons that are interested in the details of hydraulic fracturing. By scale, the image portrays hydraulic fracturing (fracking) occurring at a depth of about 100 feet underground. Wells that fracking occurs in are at a depth of many thousands of feet in depth. Water is typically found at a few hundred feet below the surface.

JoeSixPack (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 3:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks JoeSixPack. People need to stop being fearful of things just because they don't understand them, Fracing is one of these. I work in the offshore oil and gas industry and I have been researching these fracing incidents for some time. It is my conclusion that fracing is safe for ground water as long as the process is done correctly as many land rig operations could compromise ground water when they are done negligently. If the fracing water is managed properly the risk is about the same as many other drilling ops. Companies such as Ecosphere technologies are already building frac water processing units for the field. This can be done safely and it will be.

cmetzenberg (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 9:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Here is a two study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences that links fracking to earthquakes in Texas

The British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission also links fracking to earthquakes

The peer reviewed journal, Groundwater, recently published an article showing that fracking chemicals can make their way into drinking

nkc (anonymous profile)
November 15, 2012 at 11:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks for clarifying mr.6pack. I like graphics and can't retain statistics such as 11,000 ft or 8,474 ft for very long, especially after reading such a long article about something that is so hard to understand and scary. I feel better knowing if something ever goes wrong around here that cmetz assures us it will be done safely. But I'm still scared about the earthquakes nkc talks about. What if the earth uses gas and oil to grease it's gears? Could the earth use the sand/water/secret frack fluid as synthetic oil so the earthquakes don't get worse? It's so hard to understand while being so scared.

spacey (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 2:07 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The fact that Venoco wants to frack in the offshore Monterey Shale formations underneath the seafloor presents an interesting inconsistency in oil company rhetoric. On the one hand, oil companies claim that the Monterey formation is somehow linked to the more shallow formations from where oil and gas seeps leak gases into the air and oil into the sea that finds its way onto our beaches. They further claim that producing the offshore Monterey formations will reduce the pressure on the seep formations and therefore reduce both air pollution emissions and the amount of oil that washes up on our beaches. On the other hand, they claim that fracking is safe because the formations into which the fracking will be done are isolated and sequestered with no connection or translation to shallower formations. One of these claims can be true, but both of them cannot be true. I believe that the oil companies just don’t know which is true. Such a lack of certainty is unsettling.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 9:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Does "" even exist? The link is broken and a google search with the author and website only brings up this article.

It would seem reasonable to either offer the same opportunity to an "industry reporter" or fore-go the guest op-ed thing and stick to Indy staffers writing stories. Your paper is good, why give it away to "news features" like this?

Bajades (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 9:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

What, me worry?

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 10:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm all for further improvements which minimize risk. But be sure to look at the other side.

I live in Santa Barbara, and as a result of this increased activity and a bright future here in the US for oil and gas, I just scored me a job in this industry which will pay over 6 figures. Sorry for the lack of detail, but Riceman is a happy camper!

Riceman (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 4:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)


cmetzenberg (anonymous profile)
November 16, 2012 at 11:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As long as it creates one six-figure job, fracking is worth it, because those who benefit are more important than the residents and growers whose groundwater is contaminated.

Did I get that Right?

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
November 19, 2012 at 7:50 a.m. (Suggest removal)

How can fracking contaminate ground water if it is done way below the water table?

How can the US supply its own energy needs without developing its own supplies?

How can Californians justify ignoring its huge energy deposits and continue to import energy at great cost to its citizens (thanks, Gray Davis).?

What does the preponderance of evidence (as opposed to a single example or a projection of fear) say about the safety of fracking?

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
November 19, 2012 at 9:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The author of this article is so dishonest I am not sure where to begin, but I will try...

1. There is not a *single* incident of drinking water contamination anywhere due to fracking. Drilling, a few incidents as would be expected --- but not due specifically to *fracking*.

2. The % of chemicals that are mixed in with the water pumped down fracking wells is somewhere between 0.01% and 1% of the volume. Those chemicals, when finally revealed, are the same as dishwater detergent. Is dishwater detergent toxic? Sure it is! If you drink dishwater detergent you could get sick fast. But this is less than 1% of what they are pumping and they are putting it down 4000 feet or more *below* the water table.

If you are critical thinker, you have to wonder why the Independent would allow such mis-leading/lying statements to be made in the first paragraph of this story - and why someone like Natalie would write this filth. Why indeed? It's clear if you think about it. These people are anti-capitalist environmental zealots who want the only pollution to be our our human waste and regress to a point where we live to a max of 40 years old and "commune with Mother Earth". Oil, plastic, cars, carbon, etc. are all violations of the great goddess of the Earth and we must all sacrifice our standard of living, allow disease to do it's natural job and abandon all "man-made" anything, other than tee-pees and sticks.

willy88 (anonymous profile)
November 19, 2012 at 8:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

From Propublica "The study, conducted by scientists at Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested drinking water wells and aquifers across Northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers found that, in some cases, the water had mixed with brine that closely matched brine thought to be from the Marcellus Shale or areas close to it. "

"Still, the brine's presence – and the finding that it moved over thousands of vertical feet -- contradicts the oft-repeated notion that deeply buried rock layers will always seal in material injected underground through drilling, mining, or underground disposal. "

Here is a link to an abstract by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that proves that brine water can indeed show up in underground aquifers.

I am the author and I am not "dishonest." I simply read the scientific research on the topic, and interviewed scientists and regulators. There is a lot of information about fracking as in the peer reviewed academic journals if you are willing to go through the tedious task of reading them.

nkc (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 2:37 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.

Here is the abstract to the scientific, peer reviewed journal, Groundwater:

Before people through around the idea that this article is "dishonest" I would suggest that they take a trip to the library and look up the peer-reviewed scientific research on this topic. This research is available free, low cost, to the public.

If anybody wants a full text pdf of these articles, please email me. I am the author. But please, read the peer-reviewed scientific research on this topic, before embracing the ideas of commentors.

Part of the problem is that people are so quick to embrace knee jerk reactions than to take the time to read the scientific literature. Yes it is boring to read scientific journals and much more fun to mud sling, but this is how we elevate the debate.

nkc (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 2:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Here is an EPA report showing contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo. had most likely seeped up from wells and contained at least 10 compounds used in frack fluids.

You can see the entire report by clicking on this link:

nkc (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 2:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

NKC- Calm down we get it. You think fracking is bad. Unfortunately there are plenty of peer reviewed papers that directly reject all claims in your supporting information. There are many unknowns when it comes to fracking. We have to decide whether the risk is worth the reward. Currently we are using how many barrels of oil a year in CA? I'm afraid your argument may be falling on deaf ears.

MSSB (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 4:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes I can find plenty of academics who were paid by oil and gas companies to claim safety. But there are not "plenty" of academic peer-reviewed papers that claim fracking is safe who do not have ties to the energy industry.

Some of the fracking as safe research came from people like Charles G. Groat who found no groundwater contamination. He was paid $400,000, plus stock options by PXP.

This is what 400K study will buy:

Then there is the SUNY Buffalo report that also shows a lot of safety evidence.

This report cost the industry $6 million in donations to SUNY Buffalo:

The New York Times published an article about this SUNY-Buffalo report in June:

The Atlantic also reported:

Now the Ohio Ethics Commission is investigating a report by three Ohio professors, with ties to the energy institute and wrote a report about the positives of fracking to Ohio.

The Columbia Dispatch reported on this last winter:

nkc (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 7:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

NKC your article and points are well taken and understood for what they are by anyone thoughtful, intelligent and objective. Thank you for the followup commentary and references. Perhaps the 'deaf ears' are paid ones; good dogs don't bite the hands that feeds them. Else why didn't they bark with more reliable information than ad hoc woofs?

hodgmo (anonymous profile)
November 20, 2012 at 8:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Just watch the documentary “Gasland” – it tells you all you need to know about this industry. What happens when fracking comes to town: you get fracked. Drinking water permanently destroyed, air severely polluted, soil polluted, groundwater permanently devastated. And that’s not to mention the massive truck traffic, the millions upon millions of gallons of water that is used up in drilling these wells, and the ongoing enormous toxic waste problems this unregulated industry produces. That’s what fracking does. That’s not “energy independence”, that’s biocide. That’s the end of independence and the beginning of slavery. What independence can you have when you have a destroyed environment? By the time the confused public finds out what happened, it will be far too late. Oh the shame.

These liars say “there’s no groundwater pollution – it’s safe”, when anyone can open national geographic or go on youtube and see FLAMMABLE DRINKING WATER where pristine well water was prior to fracking. They have NO respect for private property owners, businesses, or the environment. They DO NOT CARE, they DO NOT NOTIFY the property owners of what they are doing, they won’t even tell you what they’re injecting into your land until the government forces them too. And once the toxic water and air start revealing themselves (and I mean, really, really toxic, deadly toxic), they lie right to everyone’s faces and do everything they can to weasel out of any responsibility. That’s what fracking offers to Santa Barbara County.

This is essentially what fracking is: an unregulated oil industry. Does that sound safe? Do I need to remind everyone of what happened in Santa Barbara in 1969? Think about that times 1,000 and you have fracking. Here’s why: unregulated profits. And the profiteers are making hay while the sun shines, hoping to make as much dirty money as possible before the “trail of tears” is discovered, the gigantic pile of public health hazards are unveiled, and the regulations and lawsuits commence.

This is the most dangerous public health and environmental issue happening in (wherever it’s happening) today. Fracking permanently destroys and despoils the ecosystem wherever it is practiced. Do you really think this incredibly profitable and completely irresponsible industry can’t hire some shills to monitor the media for “fracking” articles, and then have some of their agents pose as citizens, aggressively filling the comment boxes with pro-fracking opinions! Of course they can! And against that, we have normal citizens who stand to have their drinking water supply destroyed, their air polluted, and their environment permanently despoiled, all so a small number of money-blinded, short-sighted men can make a fistful of dollars. There is nothing I can say that would overstate how incredibly dangerous this activity is to the residents of Santa Barbara County. And it’s already happening now!

arya (anonymous profile)
November 30, 2012 at 12:56 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Could someone at the independent write a piece on how or dependence on foreign oil hurts our economy and more importantly leads to military conflicts like the Iraq Wars (no blood for oil, i know you guys can get behind this), once they have written that piece write a follow up piece justifying how our current dependence on foreign oil is ok and get me a figure on how many Iraqi children are dead vs how much ground water wasn't contaminated by not using our own natural gas, yeah that'd be great. Not in our backyard, just someone less fortunate right?

cmetzenberg (anonymous profile)
February 17, 2013 at 9:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

event calendar sponsored by: