Public opinion was split over a proposed expansion of an aquifer exemption in the Cat Canyon oil field at a hearing conducted late Wednesday afternoon in Santa Maria by two state agencies, but most of those who spoke were opposed.
Before the meeting got underway at 4 p.m., about 30 individuals representing more than half a dozen environmental organizations rallied against the expansion in front of the Veterans Memorial Community Center, where well over 100 people gathered for the technical presentation and had the opportunity to speak for or against the proposal.
The California Department of Conservation and the State Water Resources Control Board plan to evaluate opinions to determine whether the state should apply for exemption with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Whether an application is submitted and subsequently approved could determine whether three Cat Canyon oil development projects proposed by Aera Energy, ERG and PetroRock can move forward as planned.
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According to a presentation by state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources oil and gas engineer Jeff Kimber, the area proposed for the expansion meets all the exemption requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act as well as state regulations.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires protection of current and potential drinking water sources, but when analysis shows a groundwater basin is naturally oily and briny, it can be exempted from the act’s requirements, according to the Department of Conservation.
The exemption means water that comes up during oil production can be returned to the basin, but the burden of proof for the groundwater condition is placed on the oil companies.
An exemption already exists for a portion of the Cat Canyon aquifer, but the expansion request is based on new geological data.
Kimber said the Cat Canyon aquifer meets federal requirements because it is naturally oily and high in dissolved solids, is not a current or future source of drinking water, and is contained by hundreds of feet of impermeable rock.
“Water going back into the aquifer is the same water that came out,” Kimber said, noting the return water would be higher quality than the groundwater.
A number of speakers accepted the data and supported expanding the exemption.
“We’re not afraid of oil production at all,” said Tom Gibbons of Foxen Canyon Road and a member of the Blochman Union School District board. “I’m satisfied with the engineering controls and the regulatory controls of the program.”
John Wickenden, whose family has owned a ranch in Cat Canyon for 102 years, said it has coexisted with oil production for more than 75 years.
“From what I can see, the area is not now nor will in the future be a source of drinking water,” Wickenden said. “So I can see no reason why an exemption should not be granted.”
But others said the oil companies cannot guarantee the produced water will be contained and argued oil production should be halted in favor of cleaner energy sources.
Wendy Motta, representing Congressman Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, said he has concerns about the proposal.
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“We know from a preliminary U.S. Geological Survey study … four of 16 wells sampled [in the Orcutt oil field] had hydrocarbons,” she said, adding the USGS identified Cat Canyon as a high priority for groundwater monitoring, scheduled to begin this year, and urged the state to wait for the results.
Charles Varni, a retired director of a water conservation district and now coordinator of S.T.O.P. Climate Change for the San Luis Obispo Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, said he considers the exemption a “crime against the environment.”
“We’re facing a time that’s unprecedented for our species,” he said, adding the increase in atmospheric pollution over the last 74 years has contributed to “the sixth greatest extinction [of life] on Earth.”
Karen Heron of Solvang warned an aquifer exemption would have “dangerous consequences affecting the health for generations to come.”
Others didn’t question the data but did question the wisdom of the exemption.
“This aquifer may meet the criteria for an exemption, but the bigger question is if it should,” Jane Baxter said.