The process of hydraulic fracturing and how it might be regulated in the future will be the topic of a presentation before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The board will also look at the recent actions of oil company Venoco Inc., which has used hydraulic fracturing in two of its wells within the county — operations that county staff say needed special approval.
Hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking,” is a process that injects fluid into a well bore at pressures that exceed the strength of the rock, allowing previously trapped oil and gas to be extracted. Companies have added a variety of chemicals to the liquid injected into the ground, some of which are toxic, and some companies have considered these mixtures confidential trade secrets. Opponents of the process raise concerns about groundwater quality, while supporters of the practice say fracking allows access to reserves of energy inaccessible by other methods.
The California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has statutory authority to regulate fracking, but it doesn’t require reporting to track the different methods or the fluids injected into the ground. The practice is also largely exempted from the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, except when diesel fuel is used as the fracking agent.
The county supervisors requested the presentation, which will be given by Elena Miller, state oil and gas supervisor with the state Department of Conservation. Miller will explain the process, public concerns and the potential next steps for the county.
The discussion stems, at least in part, from recent actions of Venoco Inc. Two notices of violation were sent to the company in May.
“Staff recently learned that hydraulic fracturing had been conducted on two wells north of Los Alamos, using 126,000 gallons of groundwater on one well and 109,200 gallons on the other,” a staff report said. “The operator should have sought approval or an Oil Drilling and Production Plan … but did not.”
Santa Barbara County regulations don’t specifically address hydraulic fracturing but do require a discretionary Oil Drilling and Production Plan for any oil or gas drilled in an inland area within a state field that uses groundwater as a means of flooding a subsurface formation.
A letter was sent Friday from Venoco attorney Steven Kirby to Doug Anthony at the Santa Barbara County Planning Department.
“At the appropriate time and venue, Venoco intends to fully pursue its rights and remedies with respect to these notices,” the statement says, adding that the company denies that it has violated any county land use codes or permits for the two wells and asked that the notices be withdrawn.
Kirby’s letter maintains that the hydraulic fracturing didn’t constitute any kind of “water flooding” and that the notices are flawed.
An Assembly bill under consideration at the state level would require any operator planning to conduct hydraulic fracturing to disclose the chemicals that would be used in the process. Two similar bills are making their way through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
As of Monday, a handful of public comments from the Los Alamos community had been submitted to the board, expressing concern about the operations and their effect on groundwater in the area, among others.
The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.