Oil producers in the inland part of Santa Barbara County who want to conduct hydraulic fracturing on any well must get an oil-drilling production plan from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, after a unanimous vote of the county Board of Supervisors.
The board also approved language that specifically defines the oil-extraction process, commonly called fracking, in both the county’s Land Use Development Code and Coastal Zoning Ordinance.
Additionally, Doug Anthony, deputy director of the county Planning and Development Department, told the board on Tuesday, Dec. 6, that Fire Marshall Rick Todd has amended the procedure for the business plans that must be filed whenever hazardous chemicals are used.
Instead of providing a 30-day grace period to submit a plan, the plan must be submitted prior to the storage of eligible hazardous materials on a site, Anthony said.
The change was requested by the supervisors and by members of the public who are concerned about identifying what chemicals are being injected into the ground during fracking operations.
Fracking, a process that pumps pressurized liquid into a wellbore so that the pressure cracks the surrounding rock and releases more oil or natural gas, has been used since the 1940s, but only recently in Santa Barbara County. How it’s regulated is being debated at the state and federal level, as well as locally.
The process gained local prominence in June when rancher Steve Lyons discovered that wells on his property near Los Alamos had been fracked by Venoco Inc. Property owners have no power to stop the owners of their land’s mineral rights from drilling on the land.
The operations on the Lyons ranch were the first known instances of fracking in the county.
Four members of the public spoke on the issue Dec. 6, with Chris Wrather, a Los Alamos rancher who has been a leader in the push to develop county-level regulation of the oil extraction process, telling the board that the changes will allow him to “sleep a little better at night.”
“Our clean water is our essential resource, and it must be protected,” he said. “The environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing are not fully understood.”
Andy Caldwell, representing the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, noted that his organization has members on both sides of the issue, but told board members they were making a mistake in using an environmental review process to solve an engineering and geological question.
“You create engineering standards to ensure that water’s not impacted and not polluted,” he said. “You don’t throw it into the black hole of environmental review.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, saying he supports the oil industry as one of the largest employers in his district, added that “the No. 1 thing we’re elected to do is protect public health and safety.”
“There’s a lot of gray in this issue,” he said. “Without making a judgment, I think this is a safe and proper path that we need to take.”
Added 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, “This (fracking) can impact agricultural resources besides water. This provides a process where everybody who’s concerned about it knows what that process is and can be part of it if they need to.”