Clean Energy: A Crop to Harvest

Paul Wellman (file)

Increased fossil fuel production and climate change are poised to hit local agriculture hard. Could these twin threats imperil our area’s agricultural economy?

Agriculture, tourism, and wine make up the largest segment of our economy, directly employing 15 percent of Santa Barbara County’s workforce, according to a study commissioned by Santa Barbara County’s Workforce Investment Board. In 2012 agricultural production in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties was over $2 billion.

But all of that could change rapidly as our top crops — strawberries and wine — are vulnerable to climate change. According to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, California could lose 70 percent of its wine growing area by mid-century due to climate change. The study includes a map of areas currently suitable for vineyards and likely losses as temperatures rise. The red-lined areas include most of inland Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The study also points out that as temperatures increase there will be a need for more irrigation which will imperil already limited freshwater supplies in California.

A certain amount of adaptation is possible, but if we don’t reduce global emissions and head off the worst of global warming, California agriculture will face an increasingly harsh environment of decreasing yields and escalating costs.

The other threat to California agriculture comes from an oil boom made possible by new technologies such as fracking and steam injection. The largest shale oil reserve in the country, the Monterey Shale, runs right through our area, and farmers who don’t own their mineral rights could find themselves powerless to prevent drilling under their land. This happened to landowners in Los Alamos in 2011 where wells were fracked under their ranch and vineyard without permission.

In North Dakota where a shale oil boom is in full swing, some unlucky farmers have seen their land contaminated, livestock die, and property values lost. Scientific American recently reported that high levels of arsenic have been found in groundwater near fracking sites in Texas’s Barnett Shale. A steam injection well in Canada — similar to ones planned in Santa Maria — has leaked 280,022 gallons of oil across 51 acres since June and no solution has been found to stop it thus far.

These new drilling techniques are also extremely water and energy intensive so an oil boom here contributes to the larger threat of climate change and water shortages. For instance, the Santa Maria Energy project proposal to build 136 wells just south of Santa Maria would use 300,000 gallons of water a day, diverting wastewater from irrigation, and simply running the injection wells would generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as 17,000+ cars.

So what can the agricultural community do to head off these dual threats? The answer is to organize and pressure government to ban the worst and most energy-intensive oil production and to adopt more aggressive climate change policies.

Farmers would benefit financially from such policies. In places where strong clean energy standards have been enacted, farmers are among the first to profit. In 2012, 24.5 percent of Iowa’s electricity generation came from wind because the state’s energy policies ensure a market for wind power. Farmers in Iowa see having a wind turbine as just a different type of crop. The same is true in Germany, which has a goal to rely on renewable energy sources for 80 percent of its electricity by 2050. It is on track to achieve this by decentralizing energy production, rewarding people who install solar or wind turbines by paying them for the energy they produce. Again, farmers were among the first to take advantage of this new right. They gain a lucrative new source of income while maintaining the old one.

California is the leading agricultural economy in the world. It can take a lead in preserving that legacy — or live to regret it.


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