Saturday, July 21 , 2018, 1:58 pm | A Few Clouds 72º


Irv Beiman: Oil Is the Problem in Santa Barbara County’s Future, Not the Solution

A critical strategic decision is looming for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. This decision will have a continuing impact on residents for decades.

In addition to the around 1,200 operating oil wells in the county, permits for three separate projects are in process for another 750-plus new wells that will likely use extreme extraction methods, such as high-pressure steam injection, acidizing and risky disposal of high volumes of wastewater. These methods introduce hazardous chemicals into our water supply and increase seismic risk, both of which threaten our precious underground water supply.

This decision is not only about the future of oil jobs, tax revenue and extraction methods in the county, it’s also about residential water supply, property values, and the safety of irrigation water for our farms and vineyards.

While the public knows little about the risks of this technology, a media blitz has begun to persuade us and county supervisors that these projects are economically worthwhile and should be approved.

An early clear step in this media campaign took place on June 21 in Buellton. As reported earlier in Noozhawk, the event was planned to present the oil industry’s narrow view of economic benefits, without any discussion of longer term costs and risks for the county.

As a management consultant focusing on leadership and strategy execution in more than 200 for-profit organizations over a time span of three decades, allow me to present an alternative strategic view to the one put forth in this recent event.

There are two brief points to be made about strategy as it relates to the Buellton event and looming decisions by our county supervisors:

» Strategy includes considering both short- and long-term threats or risks and how to allocate limited resources. The Buellton event was focused on economic benefits, with no consideration for the county’s most critical and limited resource — safe, clean, potable water. The absence of a discussion of strategic threats and risks was by design, as a result of messaging delivered by carefully selected supporters of oil industry goals.

» Strategy includes decisions about what NOT to do, as well as what to do in our collective journey toward a better future. The Buellton event was a plug for business as usual as the county has been doing for the past 100 years, with no consideration for the “new normal” challenges that we face: the devastatingly tragic effects of fire, drought and “rain bombs” — all of which are predictable consequences of accelerating climate change that is arising because of rampant fossil fuel production and consumption.

At the Buellton event, Peter Rupert, executive director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, outlined the economic benefits to the county, and framed the issue as one of costs and benefits.

A strategic view goes beyond direct (and indirect) costs and benefits, to include longer term strategic threats and risks. Neither he nor other supporters of oil industry goals addressed strategic threats and risks.

Here are some counterpoints to Rupert’s presentation:

» We don’t need more oil. The United States is already the largest oil producer in the world and soon will be a net exporter of oil. What we need to be doing is getting off oil and building the clean energy economy of the future. This is the strategic direction that Santa Barbara County can and should establish.

» Rupert admitted he was only presenting the benefits, not the risks to our water supply, the local environment or climate considerations. The risk of spills is real. In fact, the ERG Resources environmental report anticipates 18 spills every 10 years, and some could be significant.

» He highlighted the fact that the top property tax payers are oil companies, but didn’t mention that they collectively make up a small portion of overall tax revenue, contributing only 1 percent to the county’s revenue.

» ERG owes the county $14 million and is contesting its taxes via bankruptcy proceedings. Every minute the company operates in the county, it puts the county at financial risk because if there was a major spill, there would be no way to recover those costs.

» Rupert noted the high-paying jobs in the oil industry relative to the median, but what is notable is how few people are employed in the industry, less than 1 percent of the labor force. There are other sectors that both pay more and are more numerous, such as in tech and some clean energy jobs.

According to an Advanced Energy Economy report, “Advanced Energy Jobs in California,” we have 8,763 jobs in clean energy and efficiency in Santa Barbara County, many more than in the oil industry. And those jobs are not dangerous, overnight shifts. It is a quite reasonable question to ask our county supervisors: Why aren’t we moving strategically in this alternative direction?

» What about the negative impact to tourism and the wineries and farms in Cat Canyon east of Santa Maria? This is a particularly salient strategic issue, when we combine the risk of seismic activity with the risk of aquifer contamination and oil spills.

Additionally, information provided to me by Seth Steiner, a well-informed county resident, raises questions about the credibility of Rupert’s research.

According to Steiner, “Rupert’s research output has been repeatedly used by the oil industry to justify a huge expansion of drilling in Santa Barbara County. Two of Rupert’s three Economic Forecast Project advisory sponsors are oil companies aiming to drill more than 750 wells using extreme techniques. These wells will penetrate the aquifer in Cat Canyon that provides our drinking and agricultural water. If others had sponsored Rupert’s research, might the results have been more thorough and less biased?”

Let’s ponder for a moment what is very likely to happen and has already occurred: seismic activity deep underground creating movement that cracks the protective casing around oil extraction and wastewater disposal wells. When this happens, we have no alarms that go off to alert us to aquifer and water well contamination.

Public water purveyors are required to test their water, but what about residential water wells and agricultural/vineyard irrigation? This contamination can occur with no notice, with harmful health effects.

Once it is discovered, negative publicity will harm tourism and property values.

And who cleans it up? Once an aquifer is contaminated it can’t be cleaned up. We already have a history of oil companies declaring bankruptcy after a negative event.

It is my professional view as a psychologist that oil extraction in Santa Barbara County is a harmful activity that threatens our health, our livelihood and our property values. No sane person would knowingly risk carcinogenic chemicals in their drinking or irrigation water.

We should not allow ourselves to be collectively programmed to believe that we need oil extraction in our county. It is way too risky an activity for a county that has already been bombarded by multiple tragedies over the past 50 years.

It is time for county residents and our county supervisors to awaken to the new reality that we collectively face. How can we have an improved economy when we damage our water and our agricultural produce with hazardous chemicals? This is inevitable for the longer term. It is a completely unacceptable risk!

— Santa Ynez Valley resident Irv Beiman is a retired psychologist and strategy execution consultant who has published four articles in Cost Management on strategic resilience and is the author of two books on strategy execution, one published by the Asian Development Bank and the other by China Machine Press. He can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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