Fracking Ban Coming to Santa Barbara?

The Water Guardians, a new Santa Barbara–based anti-fracking group that started gathering real momentum in March, have become even more recognizable in recent weeks.

Wearing bright blue shirts, the diverse group of about 300 volunteers has flocked to grocery stores, farmers markets, and college campuses to gather 20,000 signatures for an initiative that would ban fracking, acid well stimulation treatments, cyclic steam injection, and other “enhanced” oil extraction techniques for future projects in the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County.

If 13,201 of the signatures came from registered voters — the county registrar’s office has until June 13 to verify a random sample — the initiative will be placed on the November ballot. Or, the Board of Supervisors could adopt the measure beforehand with a 3-2 vote.

Though “fracking” has become a buzz word, it is not currently taking place in Santa Barbara County. But cyclic steam injection — a three-stage method for extracting crude oil — is happening and is a primary concern for Water Guardian organizer Katie Davis. Davis argued that injected steam can bring naturally occurring radioactive materials and other harmful elements to the surface in the form of produced water. Further, she said steam injection can cause groundwater pollution in the event of a spill, could result in seeps and eruptions, and uses a lot of water. “The risk is pretty clear,” said Davis. “If we don’t get it on the ballot now, it might be too late down the road.”

The measure would prohibit the construction of high-intensity petroleum operations onshore. (But it would not affect offshore drilling in federal waters.) The initiative would not apply to projects already approved, such as Santa Maria Energy’s (SME) 136-well project approved last year or to applications already submitted. The county’s Energy Division Deputy Director Kevin Drude said he expects to see a number of projects similar to SME’s submit applications in the future, but none have done so.

According to Drude, larger projects in the county are not currently using groundwater in cyclic steaming. (Part of the stipulations for the SME project approval was that it must use reclaimed water. SME is installing a new pipeline to use reclaimed water from the Laguna Sanitation District in North County.)

But attorney Rachel Hooper, who is representing the Water Guardians, argued water is not the only concern as cyclic steam injection produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases. The production of steam is not only harmful to human health, she claimed, but contributes to climate change.

“I think it’s an emotional issue. People are very afraid of fracking,” Drude said. “In this county, my experience is that because of the oversight of the county’s energy division, we have a pretty tight regulatory control.” Senate Bill 4, which is near finalization, will put in place monitoring and operational management of fracking in the state.

Similar measures are occurring in cities and counties across the state that would supplement SB 4. In the City of Los Angeles, the city council directed its staff to draft a moratorium on fracking and “enhanced” techniques, arguing that unconventional extraction processes threaten to contaminate drinking-water supplies, cost taxpayers money to treat contaminated groundwater resources, and undermine work to address the climate crisis. In February, the council unanimously voted to advance the moratorium, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Despite support for the initiative, Davis said volunteers ran into hecklers in the process. “You couldn’t pay people to do this,” she said.


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