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'Fracking' fight heats up ballot in Santa Barbara

Environmentalists and the oil industry will be keeping a close eye on a ballot measure in Santa Barbara County this November.

Measure P seeks to prohibit what its authors call  "high-intensity" oil extraction techniques — the oil industry calls them "enhanced." Regardless of the name, the methods essentially extract hard-to-reach gas and oil trapped between rock layers. Chemicals identified as toxic are often used, and that's led to growing concern among environmentalists.

Hydraulic fracturing is just one of those techniques, but its nickname has become shorthand for the entire suite of methods.

The fight in Santa Barbara is unique given its history. A massive oil spill in 1968 put the county on the map as the birthplace of the environmental movement. But for more than 100 years, the oil business has been one of the mainstays of its economy. The measure is now forcing residents to choose which narrative of their county best represents today's Santa Barbara.

THE WAY MOST OF US  use the word "fracking" is really frustrating to an oil guy like John Deacon. He works for the company ERG, which runs a couple hundred wells in north Santa Barbara county’s Cat Canyon.

"Nature has fractured this shale, so it doesn’t require hydraulic fracturing to produce," he said. "The cracks already exist to allow the oil to flow into the well bore."

Nobody is fracking at any of Santa Barbara’s 1167 on-shore wells. But ERG and others do inject steam to force oil and gas out. In Cat Canyon, that means crews maintain wells to keep the steam – and the petroleum – flowing. It's a process called cyclic steaming.

But growing opposition to steaming and other extraction techniques seen as unconventional has led to efforts across California to regulate or ban the practices.

In Santa Barbara County, that fight has taken the form of Measure P.

If voters approve it, ERG’s current steaming operations would be grandfathered in, but similar projects in the future would be banned. So would acidizing and, yes, the technique that’s become shorthand for all of them – fracking. Deacon says even before the vote, the measure has sent a chill through the county’s oil industry.

"We’re not investing any money. It would be crazy to spend a bunch of money and not end up being able to get any investment," he said.

Many people hear “Santa Barbara” and think of wine and tourism. But oil has been one of the mainstays of the local economy for 100 years. Santa Barbara’s wells are pulling out more oil than they did a generation ago. The increase has coincided with the industry’s growing embrace of what it calls “enhanced” extraction techniques, like steaming.

"What that tells me is that the oil available to be extracted by conventional techniques is becoming harder to find," said Erinn Briggs, an energy specialist with Santa Barbara County’s Planning Department. "Operators are having to use new technologies including cyclic steaming to extract resources that were not previously available to be extracted."

These changes are a big part of why Measure P is on the ballot.

Shortly after the county approved a group of new wells last year, Rebecca Claassen founded the group Santa Barbara County Water Guardians to put Measure P on the ballot.

"It concerns me so much to think we have thousands of wells," Claassen said. "It’s going to have tons of consequences for the community up there."

Claassen grew up around oil wells in Santa Barbara’s North County, so she knows that oil extraction has always come with risks. So far there’s no evidence of new problems related to the new techniques specifically. But supporters of Measure P say the techniques are too new to know for sure. They argue for caution.  

Next to oil fields, tucked in among vineyards, ranches sprawl over North County’s canyons. Chris Wrather of Los Alamos raises thoroughbred horses and cattle. And he says there’s one resource in the ground he’s especially concerned about.

"The value of our property, the value of our business is all dependent on water," he said. "And the quality of the water and the availability of the water."

The drought is dramatic in this part of the county. A self-described conservative, Wrather says he wants conventional oil exploration to continue. But he’s worried about how wells could fail – and how that might pollute groundwater.

"And to have that put in danger from a technology that we don’t really fully understand the implications of. That’s just wrong," he said.

Further up the coast, in San Benito County, voters are considering a similar initiative. It would go even farther and end all enhanced techniques – even in existing operations.

The measures there and in Santa Barbara come a year after the California legislature voted to regulate enhanced extraction techniques in what’s considered the nation’s toughest law on unconventional oil production. Measure P’s backers say the new regulations don’t go far enough.

"It’s a law that requires studies and review, doesn’t necessarily put regulations in place that will prevent some of the harm," said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center – a longtime oil watchdog on the central coast. "People wanted a moratorium, people wanted a ban, didn’t get it. That’s why Measure P exists."

The battle over Measure P is shaping up to be the most expensive initiative in county history. The yes campaign has raised $300,000. Oil companies have poured $7.6 million into the opposition from outside the county.

But the outcome of the Measure P vote isn’t likely to resolve tensions over oil in Santa Barbara, and another fight looms after the election.

Ed Hazard’s family draws royalty checks from oil wells, and he represents mineral rights holders along the central coast.

"This is where the oil is. My family cannot move the mineral rights," he said. "This is where Mother Nature put them. We use the oil here. Why on earth wouldn’t we want to produce it here?"

Hazard’s group is threatening to sue over Measure P if it passes.