PHRICKING, PHRACKING, PHOOEY: Maybe it’s just me, but Measure P seriously chaps my ass. Perhaps I’ve grown weary of getting my chain yanked by well-meaning Chicken Littles warning that the sky will fall if I don’t join them in drawing some line in the proverbial sand. My Pavlovian response mechanism can take only so much, and I can no longer summon forth the oceans of saliva required. Even less do I want to.
Measure P, for those inoculated from local news, is a densely packed 40-page legal document that county voters will debate between now and the November elections as to whether a high-intensity oil-extraction process known as fracking should be banned anywhere on terra firma within Santa Barbara County limits. Even though no fracking is now taking place, Measure P constitutes a massive throw down against the oil industry. That’s because the measure would also ban a lesser-known process — cyclic steam injection — in which massive quantities of steam are injected deep into the bowels of the earth to dislodge recalcitrant globs of otherwise highly viscous oil and forcing them to the surface. Given that such steam injection is currently taking place and much more is envisioned, Measure P matters. Given the dollars involved, the stakes are incalculably high.
And that brings me to my second point of irritation. If Measure P’s proponents — who’ve dubbed themselves the “Water Guardians” — want to play David to the Oil Industry’s Goliath, they would have been well advised to bring along a slingshot. And maybe a few lethal projectiles, too. Based on recent campaign finance reports, however, it would appear they’re contemplating a mano-a-mano showdown instead. Where Goliaths are concerned, that’s never been a winning proposition. Thus far, Measure P supporters have raised only about $106,000. That might be okay if this were a county supervisors’ race. But it’s not. Meanwhile, the Oil Industry — companies from all over the state — has jumped in feet first to squash Measure P. To that end, they’ve already ponied up $1.6 million. And that’s just chump change from their sock drawer. Wait ’til they start writing real checks.
All this should have been worked out in advance. Certainly, there were many veterans of the South Coast’s environmental establishment who were advising caution. But the Guardians, freaked out by the admittedly large number of new cyclic-steam well applications, were frantic to qualify something for the November’s ballot. So here we are, conscripted into a fight we wouldn’t have picked. Worse, it’s one we can’t afford to lose. Imagine the implications if the oil companies defeated a fracking ban in Santa Barbara of all places, birthplace of the environmental movement. The Earth would cease spinning on its axis.
Having gotten that out of my system, I will no doubt hold my nose and vote yes on P. What persuaded me was a major study, released just this week, which the oil companies themselves have seized upon with giddy relief, that purportedly demonstrates that fracking poses absolutely no risk to groundwater supplies. If I were an oil company, I’d do the same thing. But if you read anything of the report, you’d recognize that such spin is the equivalent of concluding that guns don’t kill people; bullets do.
The study, unprecedented in scope and access, tracked 130 water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas suspected of being contaminated by the chemical-cocktails pumped far beneath the nearby groundwater basins as part of the fracking process. Fracking critics, noting the migration of those chemicals — mostly methane — into underground basins, have long argued that the practice of fracking is inherently unsafe. What the studies show, however, is the problem is not fracking per se. The real problem, we are told, is faulty well drilling. Or even more commonly, problems with the concrete plastered around the well casings to ensure no chemical seep out, especially as the big industrialized straws penetrate underground water basins.
In other words, it’s not sex that causes pregnancy; it’s faulty condoms.
The second this study was published — by the National Academy of Sciences, no less — the Oil Industry began popping champagne corks. One industry spokesperson proudly noted that 99 percent of all wells are just fine. But given the large number of such wells drilled in Pennsylvania alone, that one percent failure rate translates to one contaminated water supply every 9 months.
What did I say about those condoms?
What relevance, you may ask, does this have for cyclic steam injection, only a kissing cousin to fracking? In 2008, the Society of Petroleum Engineers published a report on well-casing failure involved in cyclic steam injection. It turns out the report was written by three scientists working for Chevron, the same company that, to date, has spent $1.2 million to kill Measure P. Those scientists studied a field of 370 steam-injection wells in Kern County not far from Bakersfield from 1992 to 2002. They concluded that the high temperatures of the steam — about 500 degrees — used in such extraction takes a serious toll on the well casings. They found the failure rate of the well casing was not the one percent referenced by industry spokespersons. In fact, they reported that 69 of the 370 wells had well casing problems. By their own math, that’s a 16 percent failure rate. It should be acknowledged that not every time there’s a well casing problem, groundwater supplies are contaminated. But the odds do go up.
So yeah, the Water Guardians bug. But there are overriding considerations. Last time I checked, Californians are experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. Even in good years, every drop of surface water in California has been claimed five to 10 times over. In that context, the sanctity of groundwater basins are not merely important; they are survival. Yes, the county supervisors passed an ordinance regulating fracking, but supervisors come and supervisors go. Where groundwater is concerned, I’m not just a belts-and-suspenders kind of guy; I wear garters to keep my socks up, too. In the meantime, walk softly but carry a big slingshot.