After a three-year fight with local community organizations, Aera Energy has officially withdrawn its application to drill over 200 new oil wells in Cat Canyon, Santa Barbara County. Aera is now the second of three companies to withdraw permit applications in as many months.
Aera’s drilling would have significantly increased county greenhouse gas emissions, threatened vital water supplies, and put endangered plants and animals at risk.
More recently, the current pandemic has heightened concerns that air quality degradation, caused by Aera’s drilling projects, would make local residents more susceptible to viruses like COVID-19 that attack respiratory health.
Local community organizations are celebrating the news as a win for the climate, environmental justice, public health, water, and biological diversity.
“Aera’s project, along with the still pending TerraCore proposal, would have tripled county greenhouse gas emissions and threatened precious water sources,” aid Emily Williams, a local organizer with 350 Santa Barbara. “This win comes at a time when global greenhouse emissions must be cut in half over the next decade.
“It is also a signal that the era of fossil fuels is coming to its inevitable end and that we need the county to lead a just transition that protects communities and former fossil fuel workers.”
Amid broader turmoil in the oil industry, Exxon Mobil, a co-owner of Aera, held its annual shareholder meeting on the same day Aera withdrew its applications. Citing continuing uncertainty in the permitting process, as well as unfavorable market conditions, Aera, and the oil industry more broadly, are scaling back proposals.
Local environmental justice campaigners have been quick to argue that the downturn in the oil industry presents not only hardship for oil workers and their families but also an opportunity to ensure that as economies transition away from fossil fuels, they protect former fossil fuel workers with programs to incentivize renewable energy projects that employ unionized workers, and pay wages equal to, or more than, those provided in the oil industry.
“When Aera says they are withdrawing applications due to ‘uncertainty in the permitting process,’ what they really mean is community organizations like the ones here in Santa Barbara have made oil drilling so unpopular that it is politically impossible for them to continue to pollute,” said Ana Rosa Rizo Centino, Food and Water Watch’s Central Coast senior organizer.
“However, when Aera cites ‘market conditions,’ they are also admitting they never really cared about jobs at all because as soon as it isn’t profitable for them to wreck the environment, their promises of jobs evaporate,” she said.
“That’s why we need to be working with local labor groups to make sure the inevitable transition to renewable energy is one that provides well paid and dignified jobs for workers in our county,” she said.
“Residents and organizations across Santa Barbara County have worked together for years to build an unprecedentedly broad coalition to stop this massive oil expansion,” said Rebecca August, chair of Safe Energy Now North County. “It has always been a David and Goliath story.
“Today we celebrate the protection of our water, our air, our biodiversity, our economy, and our communities. We are fighting for a transition to safer energy production where we do not have to sacrifice our health, our water, our environment, and our children’s future for jobs that pay a dignified wage and an industry that provides a more stable economy.”
“I just want to thank everyone for coming together to keep our water sacred,” said Pedro Reyes, an on organizer in Santa Maria with Líderes Campesinas, who has spoken in opposition to the project for years.
Despite Aera’s announcement, community-led efforts to stop fossil fuel development in Santa Barbara county are not over. In June, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission will vote on Exxon Mobil’s application to restart its three offshore wells by adding dozens more trucks to roads each day to transport their oil from the rigs.
Meanwhile, TerraCore’s application to drill in Cat Canyon is still pending. However, local advocates who fought Aera’s application — including 350 Santa Barbara, Food and Water Action, Safe Energy Now, Santa Barbara Community Action Network, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, Líderes Campesinas, World Business Academy, CAUSE, MICOP, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, Environmental Defense Center, and Sunrise Santa Barbara — have vowed to continue fighting the oil industry while advancing a just transition away from dirty energy.