Measure P about protecting water resources

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on August 8, 2014:

At the July 29 Board of Supervisors hearing on Measure P, several speakers stated that if the measure is approved in November, the oil industry in Santa Barbara County would be shut down.

A recent guest commentary in the Santa Maria Times said the same, and on July 27 the Times expressed the belief the sponsors of Measure P want to "kill the local oil business."

To be sure, some individuals no doubt would like to see the local oil industry shuttered. But most who support the measure recognize we all use oil, and clean energy alternatives won’t be sufficiently developed for some years, in spite of our advocacy for them. Many of us support the measure because of our concerns about water resources.

Last month in this space, Jerry Connor wrote about how the rock strata on the Central Coast "are not neatly horizontal, but are instead tortuously bent, folded, rotated and faulted due to very active plate tectonics." He worries that oil, gas and produced water could therefore follow unintended paths, perhaps into our aquifers.

We have good reason to worry. The EIR for the Santa Maria Energy project noted that, "... seeps/surface expressions of oil (like those that occurred nearby on the Pacific Coast Energy Co.’s property) could also occur on the SME lease during proposed steam injection activities." And that "... in the event that such seeps/surface expressions of oil occur, the oil could migrate to nearby creeks and drainages, creating potentially significant water quality impacts."

According to a recent report, more than 12,000 barrels of bitumen, a viscous form of oil, seeped from an oil exploration area in Alberta last year. A report released by the exploration company said cyclical-steam stimulation, now widely used in northern Santa Barbara County, may have contributed to what the report described as a flow-to-surface event.

The report said cyclic steaming may have cracked open other subsurface layers, allowing oil to leak out of control from the site. Some of the oil migrated to a nearby lake where heavy oil sank to the bottom. Alberta energy regulators ordered the company to stop using the process to control the seepage.

Spills are inevitable. According to a May 2013 article in the Santa Maria Times, a leak from a wastewater pipeline traveled for a mile over an oil field and into a creek bed. The produced-water leak at 6085 Cat Canyon Road was measured at approximately 15 barrels, according to the county Fire Department.

ERG Operating Co. oversaw the cleanup on land, while California Petroleum and California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials supervised cleanup in the dry creek bed. ERG recently applied for 233 new steam injection wells.

Although we are not aware of wastewater being injected into aquifers in Santa Barbara County, this may have happened in the Central Valley. The state's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease-and-desist orders to seven energy companies, warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating their waste disposal "poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources."

The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to create an implementing ordinance to clarify exemptions allowing current oil production and well maintenance to continue. Measure P will not kill the local oil business, but it will help protect our precious local water resources.

Ken Hough is the executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network. Looking Forward run every Friday in the Santa Maria Times providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.