Santa Barbara environmentalists often equate opposition to oil drilling with environmentalism. That unfortunate error can lead to bad public policy. Measure P is example of that problem. As written, the measure would solve some environmental problems and cause others. If the authors had followed the precautionary principle, as I shall explain, it would have been a far better initiative.
Consider what would happen if Measure P were to pass. Oil and gas drilling would be substantially reduced in Santa Barbara County. (Both the environmentalists’ claims that P will have no effect on current operations and the oil companies’ claims that drilling will completely end are exaggerations.) In the short term, we would have to turn to foreign sources for the oil we need. That would cause three environmental problems.
First, most non-U.S. suppliers produce oil in far more environmentally harmful ways than we do. If the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. is approved (either by President Obama or his possible Republican successor), we may actually be replacing our oil with synthetic oil from the tar sands of Canada, which would substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions. Other major U.S. suppliers — Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, etc. — have far looser environmental regulations than the U.S., and importing their oil would similarly increase greenhouse gas emissions. Second, we would increase our reliance on oil tankers for importing oil. Spills from oil tankers and barges are the third leading source of ocean oil contamination. (Natural seepages and municipal and industrial runoff cause more pollution.) In addition, there is a risk of catastrophic environmental damage if oil tankers break up or sink, as the Exxon Valdez, Castillo de Bellver, Amoco Cadiz, Irenes Serenade, Torrey Canyon, and many others have demonstrated. Third, oil tankers need to burn a substantial amount of fuel to bring their oil to the U.S., which would also emit greenhouse gases. Overall, the result of importing oil, rather than producing it here, would be substantially more greenhouse gas emissions and ocean pollution.
Wishful thinkers may respond that we should move to renewable energy now, instead of continuing to use petroleum. There is no doubt that we should do this as quickly as possible, but it cannot be done immediately. We cannot wave a magic wand and make our reliance on oil vanish. Oil provides the energy for 94 percent of all U.S. transportation. It will take decades to reduce fossil fuel consumption as much as we should. If we cut oil domestic production before we cut demand for oil to run our cars, trains, planes, and ships, the result will be increases in imported oil and the greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental damage which that would cause.
Despite the fact that Measure P would increase greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to global warming, there are valid concerns that hydraulic fracturing may cause earthquakes and contamination of water sources. Those concerns have to be addressed. The best way to do that is to follow the precautionary principle, which holds that if an action or policy carries with it a potential risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, reasonable steps should be taken to prevent the harm. In addition, the burden of proof to show that the proposed action is safe should be on the supporters of the action, not the opponents. The absence of a scientific consensus about the risks should not be used as an excuse to proceed. In other words, society should be cautious when potential risks are high.
At first glance, Measure P appears to follow the precautionary principle, but it is actually focused more on harming the oil industry than on being cautious about risk. Two points need to be considered. First, the precautionary principle says wait for the science before proceeding. Fracking should only be allowed if it is shown to be safe. There are still relatively few scientific studies of fracking. Their results are mixed, and some of them explicitly say that there are unanswered questions about the risks entailed by fracking. This suggests that a temporary moratorium on fracking should be passed to allow time for more studies but not the permanent ban that Measure P would establish. Waiting to see what the scientists have to say would be a good policy. Deciding now to ban fracking permanently, without waiting to learn what scientific studies discover, would be unwise.
Second, Measure P would ban not just fracking, but other oil extraction methods as well, including acid well stimulation (acidization), water flood injection, steam flood injection, and cyclic steam injection. Some of these methods have been used for decades. Scientists have raised questions about the risks associated with fracking and, recently, with cyclic steam injection, not about the other methods. Bans on drilling techniques that are not alleged to be risky have nothing to do with the precautionary principle or environmentalism. The proposed bans on additional methods are nothing but attacks on the local oil industry.
Nick Welsh discussed the risks associated with cyclic steam injection in a recent Angry Poodle column. Recent scientific studies found that the high temperatures of the steam in injection process damaged the well casings and allowed leakage. That poses a risk of water table contamination and needs to be fixed. The implications of the precautionary principle are clear: Put a moratorium on the process and demand that government, academic, or oil company scientists figure out how to prevent any leaks. The answer might be as simple as thickening the well casings. There is a good case for being cautious here; there is no case for a permanent ban.
In regulating oil drilling, we should treat problems in the same way that we treat manufacturing flaws in cars. When problems are discovered, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration orders car makers to fix the problems and, if necessary, recall and retrofit cars that have been sold. They do not shut down the industry. Neither should we be shutting down the local oil industry if we can guarantee that it produces oil safely.
Here is a final thought on what we should do next. If Measure P fails, as it should, the defeat may set the stage for passing a reasonable policy to address fracking. The oil company opponents of Measure P have loudly announced that it is not needed because there is currently no fracking in Santa Barbara County. That is the first point in their ballot argument against the measure. In doing so, they have painted themselves into a corner. Arguing against a measure that set, say, a five-year moratorium on fracking (and only fracking) would be difficult for them after they have implied that a fracking ban is not needed. A temporary moratorium on fracking, until scientists learn more about it, would be both pro-environment and consistent with the precautionary principle. The same approach can be used with cyclic steam injection, although the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement should be able to handle the problem without the need for an initiative. Those are the policies we should seek. The authors of Measure P should abandon it and replace it with an initiative that is pro-environment, rather than anti-oil drilling.
Eric R. A. N. Smith chairs UCSB’s Department of Political Science and is affiliated with the Bren School of Environmental Management and Science, and the Environmental Studies Program.