Below-Ground Mysteries

Water is necessary for life. We all drink it. In addition, it makes Santa Barbara County’s agricultural economy strong, providing over 25,000 jobs. And the quality of our water is as important as its quantity.

Water that is contaminated with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals causes illness and makes land unproductive. Our health and that of a large sector of our economy are dependent on sufficient sources of clean water.

Agencies have recently been established throughout the state to manage our water for sustainability. I happen to be on the advisory committee of one of them, the San Antonio Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, although I do not speak for it here.

Geologists and hydrologists at the U.S. Geological Survey are studying the movement of water that refills our aquifer. These scientists have recently told our agency that they do not understand and cannot explain some flows underground.

At the same time, oil companies claim that their activities will not affect our water because they are careful above ground and because there are impermeable layers underground that block toxic chemicals from reaching our aquifers. Oil companies have spilled thousands of gallons of oil on our land, which seeps below the surface. They have also illegally injected millions of gallons of poisonous liquid waste into many protected aquifers.

For the proposed drilling of hundreds of new wells in Cat Canyon, here in our “backyard,” these companies would use extreme methods of extraction. Their plan is to heat water to 500 degrees and force it underground at high pressure. This can cause fracturing and, along with naturally occurring seismic activity, create new pathways of travel for liquids below ground to contaminate our water.

The U.S. is already the world’s largest producer of oil, and we don’t need any more from our county. While we think about New Year’s resolutions to lose a few pounds or to exercise more, we might also consider what we can do to stop this coming assault by the oil companies. Their shareholders see the potential for big profits, but our health and economy are at stake.

Editor’s Note: According to the county Energy Division, the steam injection process uses heat to soften the crude, not high pressure to fracture underground formations. One of the proposed projects, ERG’s, has an area that extends over the San Antonio groundwater basin, but no wells are above the San Antonio. All oil and gas production activity in the three projects, as shown at page 6 of AERA’s DEIR, takes place over the Santa Maria groundwater basin.


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