With 2,600 active oil wells in Santa Barbara County at any given time, most existing, pending, and proposed projects are on the hunt for oil. Operators here employ traditional drilling techniques, as well as cyclic steam injection — a process that involves injecting steam into the ground to thin the oil and make it flow. But fracking hasn’t really reared its controversial head, at least on county-controlled land, since Venoco was found to be doing so in Los Alamos back in 2011. More details on fracking follow, as well as 11 other energy projects on the radar of county officials and environmental organizations in our region:
(1) Santa Maria Energy: The supervisors’ 3-2 vote last November to approve the company’s proposal for 136 cyclic steam injection wells at its Orcutt Oil Field property raised eyebrows on both sides of the issue. Proponents of the project didn’t like that the board held the project to a flat annual-emissions limit of 10,000 metric tons, down from the 62,000 metric tons and okayed by the planning commission. Opponents cheered, however, hoping that the 10,000-metric-tons figure would create a new emissions threshold for the county. The operations, first proposed in 2009, will yield 3,300 barrels of oil daily.
(2) PetroRock, LLC, Garey: In March, the planning commission gave the green light — an approval that wasn’t appealed — to 56 new oil and gas wells on a property near the town site of Garey outside of Santa Maria. Bakersfield-based PetroRock will employ cyclic steam injection and make sure emissions stay under 10,000 metric tons per year for the 1,600 barrels produced per day.
(3) Pacific Coast Energy Company: In 2006, the company got approval for 96 cyclic-steam-injection wells at its Orcutt oil field site next door to Santa Maria Energy’s operations. And last year, the company submitted an application for 96 more. In recent months, the company has repeatedly gone before the supervisors to request a total of 94 emergency seep cans for its leaking operations.
(4) Venoco’s Paredon: The company has long lobbied for a 17-story, onshore-to-offshore drilling rig near its existing Carpinteria processing plant (and Carpinteria City Hall). Fits and starts have plagued the project application — Measure J aimed to bypass the city approval process in 2010 but failed — which was resubmitted to the city last summer but was again deemed incomplete in March. If it came to fruition, the project would drill 20-22 wells.
(5) Sunset Exploration with ExxonMobil at Vandenberg Air Force Base: Base commanders in 2008 seemingly nixed any further notion of this project (they said it would interfere with base operations), which allows slant drilling from the base into and under state waters. However, last fall, the air force decided to look into the viability of bases being used for such purposes; the assessment was stalled due to federal sequestration, and no official word from the air force to the county has been made.
(6) Aera: Anywhere from 200-300 wells could be used for cyclic steam injection at this company’s site in the eastern part of the Cat Canyon Oil Field, just southeast of Santa Maria. While this project is only in the conceptual phase, the potential removal of thousands of oak trees has environmental groups concerned.
(7) ERG Operating Company, LLC: Upward of 200 cyclic-steam-injection wells could one day dot this Bakersfield-based company’s land in the western section of the Cat Canyon Oil Field. ERG is still developing its proposal and hasn’t submitted anything to the county yet, but it has proposed an oil-transport pipeline along the nearby Foxen Canyon Road.
(8) Solar PG&E, Cuyama: This 40-megawatt solar array is likely to come before the county planning commission in July and then the board of supervisors in September. The panels would be located across more than 300 acres and be accompanied by a 19,600-square-foot switchyard near PG&E’s Cuyama substation.
(9) Rock mines: Scattered throughout the county are 17 mines, which source sand, gravel, flagstone, shale, and limestone. Some are near Buellton, Lompoc, and the Gaviota Coast, and some are near the Cuyama, Santa Maria, Sisquoc, and Santa Ynez rivers. Many have been in operation since the early 1900s but have recently come up for permit modifications. Big corporations like DiamondRock and CalPortland own some of the mines, while others are mom-and-pop operations. Ongoing concerns include effects on wildlife, traffic, noise, and air pollution.
(10) Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant: Concerns about radiation and earthquakes have only intensified in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Operated by PG&E, this facility is now the only nuclear plant in the state (San Onofre in San Diego County closed last year). PG&E recently tried to get its license renewed early — it is up in 2024 and 2025 — but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission axed that idea. A seismic study proposed last year was shot down by the Coastal Commission, which said that the study could be done differently without harming marine life.
(11) Sespe Oil Field, Ventura County: Although outside of Santa Barbara County, operations at this oil field have officials at Los Padres ForestWatch worried. According to Executive Director Jeff Kuyper, the 300-well site — north of Fillmore and surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary — uses fracking more than any other operation along the Central Coast. More than 12 wells have been fracked in the last two years, Kuyper said, adding that most of the field’s wells are owned by Texas-based Seneca Resources.
(12) Fracking 411: Although officials haven’t detected fracking in Santa Barbara County for several years, a group called the Water Guardians wants to outlaw the practice outright. They filed an initiative in March that would prohibit new projects in the county’s unincorporated regions from using fracking, cyclic steam injection (which isn’t the same as fracking as it doesn’t break the rock), and other “enhanced” techniques; the group has to collect more than 13,000 voter signatures for the supervisors to consider adopting it or placing it on the November ballot. Statewide, Senate Bill 4 — passed last year — requires public notification of fracking and groundwater testing before and after operations; the state also has to prepare an environmental study on the practice. How the legislation would affect the fracking in Sespe remains unclear.