In an attempt to regulate hydraulic fracturing, "or fracking," as much as possible at the local level, Santa Barbara County is studying the possibility of a local moratorium on the common but controversial oil-recovery process.
The decision came after the county Board of Supervisors heard from at least 16 people at Tuesday's meeting - a number of them advocating for the safety of the process, but many expressing concerns.
The supervisors asked county staff to study the feasibility of a ban and return on Sept. 20 with more information.
"Before any more fracking is done near our groundwater basin, we need to be certain that it won't damage our water," Chris Wrather, chair of the Los Alamos Community Association, told the board. "I don't have the comfort that we have that level of certainty now."
Wrather, a leader in the groundswell of concern about the practice, urged the board to support pending state and federal legislation aimed at regulating fracking, but told the board "it's up to you to protect us."
In addition to a moratorium, many of the speakers asked the board to consider a programmatic environmental impact report, which would require a broader look at the impacts of a fracking project.
Fracking involves pumping pressurized liquid into a wellbore at such a rate that the pressure cracks the surrounding rock, causing oil to flow out at a greater rate than normal. The liquid includes a variety of chemicals that oil producers are not required to disclose, though many do so voluntarily without revealing the actual recipe, which is considered a trade secret.
Tuesday's discussion was kicked off by a presentation from Elena Miller of the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) amid growing public concern about the of potential dangers posed by the fracking process, including groundwater contamination, increased seismic activity, and toxic air emissions.
The concerns mushroomed after it was discovered by rancher Steve Lyons of Los Alamos that Venoco, Inc. had fracked two wells on his property earlier this year, one along Old Careaga Canyon Road and the other on the south side of Highway 135.
Fracking has gone on since the 1940s, but the incidents earlier this year are believed to be the first in Santa Barbara County.
Venoco was cited by the county after those incidents because it did not get the necessary permits.
"Venoco has said they plan to do more fracking," Lyons told the supervisors. "If you don't stop them now, the county and land owners could have a major problem that can't be fixed."
At the request of 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, the board asked staff to review the county Fire Department's business plan to see whether an existing requirement that oil and gas producers disclose the type and amount of chemicals they store for more than 30 days could be modified to regulate fracking.
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"This is an issue where the community is coming to us, and what we're trying to do is make better policy," Wolf said. "I think what we need to focus on is what we need to do at the local level. ... I would hate to wait for something disastrous to happen and then respond."
Miller told the board that after receiving a call from the Los Alamos Community Services District earlier this year, she provided the district with a lot of information.
"There is a lot of concern in this community, and that concerns me in Sacramento," Miller said. "It's never a good situation when the public is afraid."
She said she was told at the time that county staff would be testing existing wells that monitor drinking water quality, and that she had asked to be notified of the results but never heard from anyone.
"If anybody thinks there's a hydrocarbon fingerprint in those monitoring wells for drinking water, you need to notify me immediately," she said. "I have not heard from anybody ... so I'm left to conclude the tests were safe."
Dr. Takashi Wada, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, confirmed that the tests produced no negative results.
Miller told the board that engineers at DOGGR's Santa Maria and Ventura offices are always available if the public needs assistance.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, in whose district the two wells were recently fracked, asked that talks continue with the oil industry about the issue, and noted that some of the frustration is the result of not knowing what chemicals are being used in the process.
"We're happy to do the testing, but not knowing what they should be testing for makes it difficult to know whether we should be concerned or not," she said.
Miller answered a number of questions from the board, including those from Farr that established there is no notification process at the state level when an oil company fracks a well.
"They don't come to me and say, ‘I want to do a frack job next Monday," Miller said. "That's where we are today. That's the issue playing out in every state that has oil."