Drilling in Cat Canyon Bad for County

This is an Op-Ed piece submitted to and published in the Santa Maria Times and the Santa Barbara News Press

ERG’s “West Cat Canyon Revitalization Plan” is the first of several ill-conceived projects that would dramatically ramp up oil drilling in Santa Barbara County. The millions of gallons of oil not only risks our local water, air and wildlife, but would inject millions of pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere adding to the rising temperatures of the planet.

In Santa Barbara County, this means higher temperatures, more heat waves, drier conditions, drought, greater fire potential, air pollution, food shortage, biological and ecosystem stress with potential extinction, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and skin cancer, ocean acidification and sea level rise.

These effects are already happening across the planet. It is not too late to start phasing out our reliance on fossil fuels. But if we don’t start doing so right now, then we are guaranteed to add to a hot and dismal future for our children and future generations to inherit.

In addition to resuscitating old oil wells, ERG’s project proposes to install more than 230 new“Enhanced Oil Recovery” wells using steam injection methods. This isn’t the conventional oil drilling that we’re used to. Steam injection is much riskier and more energy intensive than conventional oil drilling.

It is being proposed as a drilling method because the remaining oil in Cat Canyon is sticky and extremely difficult to get out of the ground. In order to bring it to the surface ERG plans to inject steam thousands of feet through the wells, some of which are decades old, to heat and add fluid to the oil until it is thin enough to be pumped back up toward the surface.

Due to the high pressures associated with steam injection, wells casings have the potential to break and cracks can form in the rocks underground creating pathways for the oil to move up towards the surface. This poses an extreme threat to the natural habitats in Cat Canyon and to the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin which lies directly above the Monterey formation.

The Environmental Impacts Report, recently released by the county, states that “accidental releases” and “ruptures or leaks from oil production facilities, pipelines, or transport trucks” are “significant and unavoidable”. The report specifies that a release or rupture would have “substantial adverse effects” on “surface or groundwater quality” and on “native species and habitats, special-status species and their habitats, and sensitive vegetation communities”.

Not only would a rupture or release be detrimental to the plants and animals in Cat Canyon it could contaminate the drinking water of Santa Maria. Depending on the extent of contamination and on the untimely and difficult nature of getting responsible parties to comply and pay for the damage, it could take decades for groundwater and surface contamination to get cleaned up.

In addition to using dangerous oil drilling methods, ERG’s plans include a 3.5 mile long fracked gas pipeline to power large steam injection engines that would pollute the air. These pipelines carry methane, a highly combustible gas known to leak during the production, storage and transportation processes. When leaked into the atmosphere, methane is even more efficient at absorbing heat than carbon dioxide. A release, which is likely to occur, would add both to local air pollution and to the rising temperatures of the planet.

Aside from economic benefit of the few and fortunate, ERG’s plan has scarce upsides. From the “significant and unavoidable” impacts of a potential release on groundwater, surface water and natural ecosystems, to the definite and detrimental effects of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the risks and consequence are heavy and many. Instead of allowing dangerous projects like this, we should promote the adoption of alternative, clean energy sources. In so doing, we will set an example for the rest of the state, nation, and other countries, and choose to make this world a better place for future generations to inherit.