Oil and water

Central Coast officials ask the State Legislature to leave counties some discretion on fracking



You’ve heard the old western proverb before, especially if you live in California: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr’s district covers a lot of water—nearly the county’s entire coastline. On Feb. 12, Farr traveled inland to testify in Sacramento before a joint committee hearing on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. California legislators had called the hearing to assess the adequacy of recently proposed state regulations on the highly controversial mineral exploration practice, and also to consider adopting a moratorium on fracking until sufficient safety measures exist.

However, Farr went specifically because of Central Coast water. Largely to protect that resource, Santa Barbara County drafted its own set of local fracking regulations in early 2012, which prompted other counties around the state to follow suit.

“I was invited because Santa Barbara County had been one of the first in the state to take matters into its own hands,” Farr told New Times after the hearing.

Fracking involves the high-pressure pumping of chemically treated water into the seams of coal beds and oil deposits to extract fossil fuels that would otherwise prove uneconomical to harvest. Environmental groups nationwide made fracking a focus of reform in 2012 after groundwater problems arose near a number of fracked gas wells back east. In California, the petroleum industry already uses fracking relatively sparingly in some local oil fields, but that activity may soon dramatically increase.

Farr spoke at the hearing as a representative of one of several counties that sit atop the massive Monterey shale oil deposit. The field lies predominantly under Kern County, but healthy oil reserves also exist in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Some officials went on full alert when, to the astonishment of everyone except industry, it turned out the Central Coast could—and has been—fracked by oil operators.

“Despite [Santa Barbara County’s] long history of oil development, we mistakenly thought that the geology of our area was not conducive to fracking,” Farr told the committee. “So, despite the growing concerns about fracking coming from eastern states, we thought it wasn’t something we had to be on the lookout for in our county.”

When locals began asking how fracking could occur in Central Coast oil wells for decades without community knowledge, permissive state regulations quickly emerged as the culprit. The California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) only first issued draft disclosure requirements in December 2012. Even those efforts met with criticism from environmentalists who argue that oil operators should disclose not only the chemicals used to frack a well, but also the source and discharge point of the water used.

“We’ve been fighting over water in California for the past century, yet the oil and gas industry has gotten a free pass,” Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action told legislators.

Farr and the other county representatives present echoed that sentiment, but also asked legislators for a local say in a debate that has traditionally taken place in state capitols and in Congress. State governments often zone local governments out of the business of regulating mineral extraction because it makes operators adjust every time they cross county lines, a concern voiced by a few senators on Feb. 12.

At the hearing, Farr implored lawmakers to break with this tradition.

“Please don’t preempt local government from our role in regulating fracking as a county land use issue,” she said.

State preemption would mean counties couldn’t regulate fracking, since doing so would interfere with California’s statewide efforts. Farr and other local officials instead want a system that allows counties to put higher standards in place to address site-specific concerns.

For example, a Los Alamos rancher recently discovered an oil operator fracking in a well very near his fields. In contrast, most fracking occurs in extremely remote wells. The situation caused a local uproar over not just water quality, but water rights in the chronically overdrawn Los Alamos Valley water basin.

“If the basin is already in overdraft and you take out the large quantity of water you need for fracking, then the wells are going to run dry,” Farr said.

What worries industry advocates is the possibility of a statewide moratorium on fracking until California can adopt satisfactory rules. Several states have moratoriums in place. Vermont became the first state to ban fracking in May 2012.

Otherwise reticent in taking too bold a public stance, industry spokesmen suggested at the Feb. 12 hearing that environmentalists’ true objective in proposing a moratorium was to halt development of the Monterey Shale. Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) called California regulations a model for other states (a characterization strongly disputed by environmentalists) and pointed out that state oil production continues to decline.

“We are importing oil from places that don’t have [those regulations],” Hull said. “We don’t want to close our eyes to domestic production.”

Although the possibility of a moratorium remains a foggy prospect, an increase in heightened disclosure requirements seems a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, environmental groups publicly questioned whether DOGGR could handle the task of requiring disclosure, and bristled at a recent statement by the agency that a public database would take five years to develop.

“This lack of disclosure is creating a crisis of confidence at all levels of government,” Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett told the committee.

Industry groups already maintain a publicly available Internet registry of fracking operations that all WSPA members agreed to use. However, an operator can still opt out of disclosing well activity.

Asked by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Thousand Oaks) if WSPA would support a disclosure requirement, effective immediately, Hull responded, “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at [email protected].

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