Santa Barbara – In recent years, oil and gas fields throughout California have experienced an expansion in “aquifer exemptions” from federal drinking water protections, threatening public health and risking degradation of fresh groundwater. Santa Barbara County is no exception.  Several years ago, oil operators in northern Santa Barbara County’s Cat Canyon Oil Field asked the state agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas operations (CalGEM) for such an exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to inject hot steam and toxic wastewater into aquifers beneath a critical groundwater basin.   The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) has just received $10,000 in grant funding from the Fund for Santa Barbara (Fund) to ensure EDC can continue its research and distribute information about the Cat Canyon Aquifer Exemption to clients and partners to help prevent irreparable, unmitigated damage to drinking water, groundwater for agriculture, and public health for surrounding communities. 

EDC has been working on this project, entitled “Protecting Drinking Water for the Communities Surrounding Cat Canyon,” since 2019, disseminating information to a coalition of grassroots organizations, advocating before decision-makers, and submitting numerous comment letters, expert reports, and group letters to the State Water Resources Control Board and CalGEM to advocate against this Exemption. If approved, the Cat Canyon Aquifer Exemption could open the door for an expansion of dangerous steam injection operations in the Cat Canyon Oil Field.  This form of enhanced oil recovery is not conventional.  It is riskier and extremely carbon intensive, further contributing to the climate crisis.  The injection of oil field fluids and hot steam into aquifers threatens to contaminate drinking water for North County residents as well as freshwater needed to support local agricultural operations.  The communities surrounding Cat Canyon rely on this groundwater for their drinking water.  Moreover, parts of the Cat Canyon Oil Field are already ranked among the top 1% for groundwater threats, heightening concerns about further degradation of groundwater if this aquifer exemption is approved.  Stopping this aquifer exemption is critical to our communities, and with this grant from the Fund, EDC will be able to continue its work to prevent its approval.  

“The Environmental Defense Center is grateful for the support of the Fund for Santa Barbara as we continue our work to protect drinking water for 150,000 residents of North County Santa Barbara,” said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel of EDC.  “On behalf of the Sierra Club and Santa Barbara County Action Network, and in partnership with affected communities in North County, we oppose the State’s proposal to exempt drinking water aquifers from the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and to allow oil companies to inject their toxic wastes in areas that will threaten critical water supplies for surrounding communities and farms.” 

The goal for these efforts is to protect groundwater from oil operations and prevent the expansion of oil production in Cat Canyon that would impact underserved communities in North Santa Barbara County. EDC’s primary role is to do the legal and scientific research, engage in advocacy, and ensure that partner organizations doing the organizing work have the information they need to build support. EDC works to empower grassroots organizations to participate in the processes needed to bring change, ensuring a stronger foundation of community representation when issue such as this dangerous aquifer exemption arise. 

Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection.  Program areas include climate and energy, and protecting clean water, the Santa Barbara Channel, and open space and wildlife. Learn more about EDC at 


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