Seven months and one day removed from their controversial approval of Santa Maria Energy’s 136 cyclic-steam injection wells, the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Friday to place a measure on the November ballot that would ban new cyclic steaming, hydraulic fracturing, and acidizing operations in the unincorporated areas of the county. Although the four-hour hearing’s conclusion was foregone — it was either put the initiative on the ballot or adopt it outright — its messages echoed those of the Santa Maria Energy meeting in November.
Friday’s hearing saw more than 100 speakers make impassioned pleas both for the economy and for the environment. Although they were deeply outnumbered in comments, oil industry representatives and employees urged the supervisors to place the measure on the ballot but to consider its consequences. The bill’s passage would jeopardize existing jobs and kill future jobs in an already money-strapped North County, and it would threaten millions of dollars in property-tax revenues for the entire county, opponents said. They repeatedly reminded the board that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, hasn’t occurred in Santa Barbara in years, thanks to the tough regulations enacted by the supervisors in 2011, and that a recently passed state law, Senate Bill 4, would further monitor the practice starting in 2015.
But proponents of the ordinance said that Santa Barbara County, the birthplace of the environmental movement, should take a leadership position on the issue. They spoke more about cyclic steaming than fracking — the former involves pumping heated water into the ground to thin oil and release it, while fracking breaks the rock — and labeled the opposition’s concerns as scare tactics. They served up their own scares too, expressing worries about the methods’ heavy reliance on water in a time of extreme drought and a continued reliance on fossil fuels in the face of climate change. Supporters donned shirts and scarves colored the shade of blue now associated with the Water Guardians, the activist group that quickly sprang up and gathered 16,000 signatures — 3,000 more than necessary — in a matter of weeks to qualify the ban for the ballot.
For the first time, the group was formally supported by the area’s major environmental players, including the Sierra Club, the Community Environmental Council (CEC), and the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). The executive director of the EDC, Owen Bailey, spoke first. “The fact is these risky, polluting technologies pose significant threats to our communities and our environment,” he said. “And they remain insufficiently regulated.”
If approved by voters in November, the ordinance would prohibit enhanced extraction methods — most notably fracking, cyclic steaming, and acidizing — but not affect existing projects, including Santa Maria Energy’s 136 wells. The measure’s stipulation that certain future projects could qualify for exemptions presents some issues, many said Friday, as the county would have to deal with those on a case-by-case basis; similar concerns abounded about vested rights. How well-maintenance techniques — which involve routinely treating wells with chemicals to rid them of buildup — would be interpreted under the ordinance also remains fuzzy, with its authors saying they wouldn’t be included. Others disagreed. County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni declined to comment but said his impartial legal analysis of the ordinance will be available in late July.
According to a presentation from staff, Santa Barbara County currently has 1,167 active onshore oil wells that produced 4.3 million barrels of oil in 2013. Most of the oil wells employ traditional drilling techniques, with cyclic-steaming operations accounting for about 15 percent of the total operations, said Kevin Drude, the deputy director of the county’s energy division. But cyclic steaming is growing increasingly popular, with 69 percent of the oil wells permitted last year using that method, 80 percent of the 131 recently applied-for wells proposing it, and 100 percent of the applications for another likely 533 wells requesting it. Of those 903 total wells, 89 percent would use techniques singled out in the initiative.
How many barrels of oil 903 wells could produce varies greatly, Drude said, adding that the emissions those wells could emit would be much more predictable. Based on the 88,000 metric tons projected to come from Santa Maria Energy’s 136 wells, 903 cyclic-steaming wells would produce emissions equivalent to more than 100,000 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Also included in the report, and noted by many speakers, were the economic projections if the measure passed. Annually, oil companies pay about $16.4 million in property taxes, a huge chunk of which goes to schools, with the rest heading to County Fire, special districts, and the county as a whole. County staff cautioned that the possible economic effects of the measure likely wouldn’t be felt immediately and would be subject to the number of projects exempted, as well as factors dictated by basic supply and demand.
The measure could even create opportunities for new business, the report stated, although it could affect current workers in the industry, which hosts about one percent of all jobs in the county. How the measure could affect property-tax revenues and thus future infrastructure funding — the supervisors approved a plan Wednesday that directs $102 million in future revenue growth to maintenance costs — is unknown; a fiscal impact statement will come in August.
The supervisors also voted 5-0 against authoring ballot arguments either for or against the initiative but could change their minds until late July. Supervisor Salud Carbajal suggested he would look into endorsing it, and North County supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino indicated they will fight it leading up to November.
Lavagnino, who commented on the matter more than any of his colleagues, made similar points to those he voiced in November. He supports alternative forms of energy, like wind and solar, he said, but fossil fuels remain a fact of life. “The reality is, I had to park a half-mile away from this place today because people still use cars,” he said. “The GHG [greenhouse gas] impact for us not acting locally is we have to get it from somewhere else. And as long as we’re still driving cars, we have to get it from Iraq or Venezuela or Algeria or somewhere else.”
Lavagnino, who said that the county has received zero fracking applications since its new rules were implemented, also chastised the speakers who minimized the ordinance’s would-be effects on the industry. “It’s easy to say somebody else’s job is superfluous. If you’re one of the guys out there, it’s pretty important to you,” he said. “If the ban was to ban environmental activists’ 501(c)(3)s, you guys would be all up in arms, and they’d say, ‘It’s only a couple hundred of you, so it’s no big deal.’”
After the meeting, Katie Davis, who helped spearhead the Water Guardians’ efforts, said she has faith in the group’s message but acknowledged the likely million-dollar war they’re now headed to against the oil industry. “I do believe this will be a David-and-Goliath-type battle,” she said.