by Katie Davis
Commentary on the Board of Supervisors meeting held June 13, 2014
You know something unusual is happening when a crowd of people show up for a County Supervisors hearing two hours early to get a seat, and a meeting scheduled to last one hour stretches to a four-and-a-half hour marathon as nearly a hundred people stand up to make public comments.
That was the unusual scene that unfolded in the Santa Maria County Administration building the morning of Friday, June 13 as Supervisors met to consider the “Healthy Air and Water Initiative” to ban fracking, acidizing and steam injection in Santa Barbara County. Despite significant turn out from the oil industry, an overwhelming seventy percent of speakers — from many walks of life and every part of the county — spoke out in favor of the initiative to ban these techniques, emphasizing how critical it is to protect our water supplies.
While the vast majority of current active wells are conventional and do not use these extreme techniques, there has been a recent surge in applications for high-intensity oil production. This type of extraction has more negative impacts, requiring more machinery, derricks and other visual blight and noise, heavier use of water, greater risk of leaks and ground and water contamination, higher air emissions and fumes and greater risks to human health. The Healthy Air and Water Initiative would ban future expansion of these riskier techniques, while allowing conventional oil production to continue.
A number of farmers and ranchers spoke to their concerns about the potential for water contamination. “Our water comes from a well near the San Antonio creek,” said David Holden explaining they were down river of an oil field. “My daughter just had our first grandchild, and I want to assure her that the ranch water will be as good for her daughter as it was when she grew up.”
An oncologist explained that his job was sometimes to tell people the bad news that they have cancer and pointed out all of the toxic chemicals associated with fracking, acidizing and steam injection. “We have enough cancer and the last thing we need is more carcinogens in our environment.”
One proponent spoke to the “myth of oil jobs” pointing out that according to the authors of the Economic Impact Study of Onshore Oil and Gas commissioned by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the industry self-reported only 336 direct employees, or 0.1% of county employment. A number of speakers also pointed out that extreme extraction is not compatible with wine, tourism, agriculture, tech and other our major employers and could hurt jobs. “It was vintners in France who pushed through a ban on fracking there,” pointed out a resident of Los Olivos.
Supporters of the initiative pointed out that these risky techniques could actually cause a decrease in property values and county property tax revenue. “Who wants to live next to an oil facility?” asked James Downey of Lompoc.
After hours of public comments, Supervisors voted to place the Initiative on the November 2014 ballot.
In most places, voters don’t get to decide if a boom in unconventional extraction is right for them. It just hits, and they have to deal with the consequences. Individuals whose homes are devalued, or who suffer health problems or have their groundwater contaminated don’t get a say in the matter.
Oil use in the United States is decreasing. Fuel efficiency is improving. Whether oil production here goes up or down will have no impact on these macro trends or on global prices of oil or gasoline. Santa Barbara County is a unique place, a biodiversity hotspot, a populous and beautiful region. This Initiative gives us a chance to preserve this area and lead the way in transitioning to cleaner sources of energy rather than doubling down on some of the dirtiest and riskiest forms heavy oil production.
Judging by the energy in the hearing room last Friday, many Santa Barbara County residents agree. To read and endorse the initiative yourself, go to www.waterguardians.org.