Santa Barbara rose to prominence in the environmental movement after a massive 1969 offshore oil spill drew national attention to the issue and changed the industry forever. Since then, the city and broader region has been a leader in environmental awareness, even as it sits on massive fossil fuel deposits. With residents set to vote on an anti-fracking ballot measure Tuesday, the next evolution in that ongoing dynamic could be one of the biggest turning points yet.
“It’s no surprise that international oil giants have funneled money into the anti-Measure P effort,” Lauren Hanson, vice president of the Goleta Water Board and long-time area resident, told ThinkProgress. Goleta is located immediately next to Santa Barbara. “That this is so important to them — to take over beautiful Santa Barbara County at virtually any cost — is a demonstration of cynical corporate overreaching at its worst.”
Hanson said the real surprise has been that the onslaught of industry money hasn’t discouraged residents, and that even if the oil companies win this round “they had better prepare for a long, long struggle here.”
California is famous for its ballot initiatives and if the lopsided governor’s race isn’t captivating potential voters this year, then down-ballot items should. On top of a major water initiative, Proposition 1, which would authorize a $7.12 billion bond for California’s water system, there are several local fracking measures that could have statewide and nationwide implications going forward. There are a record number of anti-fracking measures on ballots across the country this year, according to InsideClimate News. These include four Ohio towns, Denton, Texas, and Santa Barbara, San Benito and Mendocino counties in California. And considering California was the third-highest crude oil producing state in 2013, interest in its anti-fracking initiatives extends far beyond state lines.
For evidence of the stakes in California, look no further than the industry investment in fighting the measures. Major oil and gas companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Occidental Petroleum have pumped more than $7.5 million into the pro-oil coalition Californians for Energy Independence in an attempt to defeat the bans, according to the California Secretary of State’s campaign finance database.
Most of this money went to Santa Barbara County, which has received over $5.7 million from the oil industry — more than is being spent on any congressional race in any district in California this year. Proponents of Measure P, as the Santa Barbara anti-fracking initiative is called, have raised just over $350,000. The rest of the Californians for Energy Independence cash has gone to oppose a similar ballot measure in San Benito County farther up the coast and inland.
Measure P would prohibit “high intensity” oil and gas operations such as fracking, acid well stimulation treatments and cyclic steam injection. Currently, Santa Barbara County has around 1,167 active onshore wells, about a third of which use steam injection and very few, if any, of which use conventional fracking. Hanson said it’s important to note that the County has already established implementing ordinances for Measure P, to be ready if and when it passes, that offer a variety of exemptions for future drilling proposals. Therefore, this is not an outright ban on all future projects.
“Measure P would make it much more difficult for high intensity petroleum operations to come into Santa Barbara County on the scale envisioned by industry players,” said Hanson.
Earlier this year, a California bill that would have banned fracking while the state studied its risks was defeated in the state senate by the narrow margin of 18-16. The oil industry, including the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), spent heavily lobbying against the bill. Altogether the industry — including WSPA, Chevron, and BP — spent more than $56 million lobbying the California Legislature from 2009 through 2013.
Timothy Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, east of Los Angeles, said that communities would normally look to state or federal regulations for something like fracking that crosses political and geographical borders. Absent that leadership, local groups are attempting to exert some authority of their own as the larger debate over fracking regulations progresses, with statewide regulations probably more than a year away.
Krantz said the push to pass the measures in California has created some strange bedfellows. Whereas the environmental community and the agricultural sectors often oppose each other on regulating water resources, they’ve formed a coalition to support the ban.
“From the farmers’ perspective, fracking and enhanced oil recovery methods endangers their groundwater supplies, a resource they depend on,” said Krantz. “From the enviros’ perspective, we are in the midst of an historic drought, part of a very serious drought cycle, and we can ill afford this extensive use of water for enhanced oil recovery.”
As Krantz sees it, these fracking initiatives are really all about water — the use of it, the contamination of it, and where it ends up.
“We will already be in a world of hurt to satisfy municipal water needs, let alone fracking,” he said of the state’s near future. Earlier this year, along with the California Dept of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), Krantz examined seven water supply wells within one mile radius of fracking injection wells sampled. He said of these, three exhibited high nitrates levels, two had elevated arsenic, and three had high thallium levels. He also said he examined an eighth well with produced water from a fracking injection site that had benzene levels “off the chart for such a highly carcinogenic chemical that’s been well documented for its strong correlations to leukemia and other cancers.”
Last July, California state regulators shut down 11 fracking wastewater injection wells over concerns that the wastewater might have contaminated aquifers used for drinking water and farm irrigation. Earlier this month, state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that almost three billion gallons of oil industry wastewater has been illegally dumped into these central California aquifers — and they also showed that Central Valley Water Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitrates.
Oil and gas deposits aren’t the only boundary crossers in the fracking landscape. Watersheds and groundwater basins also have little regard for human-conceived maps. Krantz said Los Angeles is a good example of where this can come into play. The city has enacted a moratorium on fracking, however upstream they are “fracking away” with chemicals that will eventually flow into the city’s water supply on the way to the coast.
Geologists in the area agree.
“Why should we risk the safety of our water supply just to rush the supply of our local oil to the global market place?” Ken C. Macdonald, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Earth Science, said in a statement supporting Measure P this week. “We should keep our oil supply in the ground until we, locally, really need it, and then extract it only if the technology has advanced to the point where there is no threat to our drinking water.”
Linda Krop, Chief Counsel at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara told ThinkProgress that there is a lot of oil development on ranching property where ranchers own surface rights but oil companies own the sub-surface mineral rights. She said while ranchers get a little money from the leases, they also deal with a lot of concerns over the quantity and quality of their groundwater.
“Even though people tend to couch everything in terms of fracking, like this initiative, all these kinds of new technologies are very dangerous, polluting, and not well regulated,” she said. “Combined, they are ramping up proposals like this.”
Krop said that the oil industry is trying to send a message to other localities around the country so they’ll know what they’re up against if they try and put up a fight. She also sees the proposition as evidence that people are starting to think more about the repercussions in terms of climate change.
“I definitely think a lot of people are looking at the bigger climate issue and realizing that we need to be moving away from fossil fuel technologies that need a lot more energy and contribute more to climate change,” she said.
Other counties around the state are also paying close attention. While fracking in Santa Barbara County is limited, Ventura, to the south, has some 540 drill sites that use stimulation technologies like hydraulic fracturing, according to a September report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report found a small number of sites in nine California counties, with the vast majority — some 2,361 — being sited in Kern County, a large, inland swath of land just northeast of Santa Barbara.
Earlier this month, Ventura County launched its own campaign to ban fracking and injection wells. It is one of a dozen or so similar efforts throughout the state to win local prohibitions on the processes.
The NRDC analysis found that 5.4 million people, 14 percent of the state’s population, live within a mile of one or more of the 84,000-plus existing oil and gas wells. More than a third of these people also live in areas most burdened by environmental pollution as identified by the California EPA, and up to 90 percent of these are people of color, predominantly of Latino origin.
“The security of our local water supply is of great concern to me,” said Hanson. “I would hope that the residents and businesses in this county realize what the oil industry is asking all of us to risk for that industry’s commercial interests.”
Hanson said her work with the local water board involves doing everything they can to keep invasive species out of reservoirs, preventing pollution from boats on lakes, and other seemingly minor endeavors that can adversely impact water.
“Thousands of new, high intensity oil wells, drilled near and through the County’s groundwater basins, would absolutely dwarf other known sources of risk, in my opinion,” she said. “To allow a single industry — whatever that industry might be — to introduce that magnitude of risk to the local groundwater supply makes no sense to me.”