About 20 people attended a Monday night forum in Solvang designed to gather support for blocking new oil wells in Santa Barbara County, pushing for full renewable energy sources in the county and state and ending California’s cap-and-trade program.
The group gathered in the Legion Wing of the Veterans Memorial Building to hear four speakers discuss plans for more than 700 “new” oil wells in the county, the potential for wells to contaminate groundwater, restrictions on developing alternative energy and the failure of the cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Speakers were Alena Simon, Santa Barbara County organizer; Adam Scow, California director of the national nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch; Rebecca August, of Safe Energy Now; and Ken Hough, of the Santa Barbara County Action Network.
Their presentations and audience questions were reserved until Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, questioned some of the statements and claimed they were misleading scare tactics.
Then interactions between Caldwell and audience members became contentious and nearly deteriorated into an arguing match before organizers calmed things down and began disbanding the meeting.
Simon began the program by outlining how “big oil” is one of the biggest lobbies in California and made Santa Barbara County the fifth-largest oil producing county in the nation’s third-biggest oil producing state.
She said the oil companies use the revenues and jobs they generate to justify the value of oil production, but she said only 1 percent of the county’s budget comes from oil revenues and the jobs are short-term, while oil production takes “an enormous toll” on county roads and threatens aquifers with contamination.
Simon said the county has more than 1,200 active wells, many using “extreme extraction” techniques like steam injection, but three companies are proposing to add 759 more wells.
She said Aera Energy is proposing 296 wells in Cat Canyon, while ERG wants to open 233 wells, although that would include expanding 90 existing wells, add 11 new drilling pads and reactivate four steam generators, and PetroRock wants to drill 230 wells.
“The oil is 2,000 to 3,000 feet below the surface, but the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin is 400 feet below,” she said. “So they’re drilling through the groundwater basin to reach the oil, which is kind of scary. If any of those wells failed, it could pollute our water.”
She said the coalition’s goal is to get the county Board of Supervisors to stop new oil projects and place a ban on using extreme oil extraction techniques.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Simon said. “This is about protecting our health and protecting our water.”
August said her organization is a small group that grew out of Measure P and works to oppose unsafe energy.
She claimed that in 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency discovered the state was allowing oil companies to discharge drilling wastes from 2,400 wells into federally protected aquifers throughout the state.
She said the EPA ordered the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — commonly called DOGGR — to bring the aquifers into compliance.
August said oil companies stopped injecting wastes into 60, while 40 were proposed for exemptions and four were granted exemptions. She said nine of the 40 are in this county — two near Los Alamos and three north of Lompoc.
Hough said oil companies want to reactivate wells using pressurized steam, which can increase oil leaks, and there are “hundreds of inactive wells” in Santa Maria.
“We’ve been worried in Santa Maria that some of these wells will be reactivated,” he said, adding that the city seems more amenable to such projects than the Board of Supervisors.
“The odds are there will be a lot of Class 1 impacts that can’t be mitigated,” he said. “So we’re gearing up to oppose these projects.”
Hough also said there are “hundreds and hundreds of wells” that are drilled through aquifers to reach the oil.
“Seals fail, concrete cracks,” he said. “Are any of these (wells) leaking? We don’t know. As far as I can determine, we don’t test (groundwater) for oil contamination.”
He also said the county limits the amount of utility-scale solar power stations that can be built, while utility companies limit the amount of electricity residents can generate with solar panels, and those restrictions need to be changed.
“We all need energy, but we need to transition to alternatives as soon as we can,” he said.
Scow said California has the worst air pollution in the nation, but the state must take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the sixth-largest economy in the world and the second-biggest polluter in the country.
He said the state’s cap-and-trade program that was designed to reduce pollution has turned into a revenue source that has failed in its mission and should be allowed to expire, not renewed.
“We have to get off fossil fuels,” he said. “Do we wait until Exxon and Chevron have drilled out every drop of oil, or do we do that sooner?”
But Caldwell challenged the group’s claims about groundwater pollution.
“There’s a lot of misinformation in this meeting,” he said. “The steam that comes out of the oil layer goes back into the oil layer, not the aquifer. So you’re scaring the hell out of these people (with false information).”
His comments drew angry responses from some in the audience, and the meeting soon broke up.
“It’s all one-sided diatribes,” Caldwell said outside after the meeting. “They’re trying to scare the hell out people with stories from other areas. … We’ve been drilling oil here for over 100 years, yet they can’t cite a single case of water contaminated by oil.”
Roy Reed, who said his family farms 2,700 acres and also has oil production, asked why he would want to endanger his crops if he thought drilling led to pollution.
“The other half-truth they’ve got in there is the map showing 700 new wells,” Caldwell said. “There never has been less oil activity in this region than there is now. Seven hundred wells — that’s the lowest in history.”
But some audience members weren’t swayed by his arguments.
“We’ve been asleep for a long time,” Pedro Reyes said. “It’s time we wake up. We need to be proactive. That’s why I’m here. I want to be proactive.”
Esperanza Bautista said Native Americans lived in the area for hundreds of thousands of years without damaging the environment and left a legacy for their descendants.
“We have to consider we’re not the last people here and we’re not the only ones,” she said. “As a Native American woman, I always have to think seven generations ahead.”