Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 12:46 am | Fair 67º


Irv Beiman: Our Protection Is More Important Than Oil Company Profit

It is strategically important to consider the pending implementation of extreme oil extraction methods for our immediate future in Santa Barbara County. We have more than 1,000 oil wells currently operating in the county.

More than 750 new oil wells using extreme extraction methods are in various stages of permits and environmental impact reports. They are mostly invisible from any of the major highways, but peek over a nearby hill in the Cat Canyon area and you can find them.

Safe Energy Now! North County (SENNC) is a representative group of concerned citizens from Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos and Santa Maria. It has been researching the oil and water controversy, as well as sharing information with each other and the public for the last couple of years.

To understand the risks that extreme oil extraction poses for our land, our water and our air, it is important to understand what someone who worked at Ground Zero has to say about it. Larry Bishop is a member of SENNC and a North County resident. He has worked in a hazardous materials inspection role for more than three decades.

I interviewed him to gather more information on his credibility, his knowledge and his direct experience. Prior to the interview, Bishop provided me with a written document that clarifies his position on oil extraction. I have provided it immediately below:

“My friend in Orcutt recently received a letter from Aera (Energy) asking for support to add 296 high-pressure and temperature oil wells and waste water injection wells to their Cat Canyon facility that is upstream from Los Alamos. Aera is a limited liability oil company, created by ExxonMobil and Shell Oil, to extract oil locally while limiting their financial and environmental responsibilities.

“The Aera letter falsely extols the financial and environmental benefits to our county. They tout all the donations they’ve made to local groups and only ask that North County folks rise up and support their project to the Board Of Supervisors.

“The Aera East Cat Canyon oil field sits at the headwaters of the Santa Maria waterbasin/watershed. This watershed provides drinking water to Santa Maria and all the farms, ranches, vineyards and residences downstream.

“As a hazardous material specialist for more than 25 years, I have responded to many oil, gas and wastewater spills in the East Cat Canyon area. I have found that often spill prevention and clean-up measures at these facilities are not adequately implemented unless costly enforcement action is imminent.

“All oil wells and pipelines leak at some point in their lifetime, both above ground and at various locations underground. These wells and pipes pass through our drinking water aquifers.

“It is time that we in the North County say NO to irresponsible and high-risk oil extraction. Conventional oil extraction is lower risk. It is only a matter of time before these newer high temperature, high-pressure wells leak into our drinking water. Then when the oil company skips town, who pays to clean up our water and land?

“Let’s build safer solar and wind-generated power, and profit from these in North County.”

As a result of my interview, I learned that Bishop worked for Los Angeles and Santa Barbara County government for a total of 33 years, 25 of them in Santa Barbara. He served initially as an investigator and later as a supervisor in what was called the Hazardous Material Program of the Santa Barbara County public health and fire departments.

His primary job was to inspect companies that handled hazardous materials, which are called hazmat for short. When called to inspect, he often wore a hazmat suit. He responded to larger spills with the Fire Department to enforce hazmat laws and regulations for cleanup.

He also participated in surveillance and enforcement programs to ensure oil company compliance for handling hazardous materials. Compliance includes receiving, using, storage and disposal of hazardous materials, as well as cleaning up spills when they occur.

Bishop noted that compliance with hazmat regulations is expensive, which can lead to problems.

“We often found that the oil companies are not handling the materials properly, regarding storage, labeling and spill prevention procedures,” he said. “They’re not reporting spills. They don’t clean them up properly and they don’t dispose of the waste properly.

“Plus, they don’t let the public know there has been a spill, contrary to current laws and regulations.”

Aera Energy is one of the three oil companies that have submitted proposals in Santa Barbara County for new and refurbished wells. These wells are likely to use extreme extraction methods.

Several years ago, Bishop visited the Aera facility that is owned by Shell Oil. He said there was oil running out from a location that was supposed to have been “clean closed,” which meant that all the oil from the closed facility was supposed to have been removed to ensure prevention of hazmat risk. The company cleaned up all the visible signs of oil, but failed to remove all the material from the underground pipes, he said.

According to Bishop, “these old closed facilities often have to be cleaned up again.”

Bishop said oil company contributions are important influences on our local governments. A formal enforcement action involves penalties being assessed when noncompliance or an infraction has been clearly identified. He said he has experienced formal enforcement actions that should have been taken against a major oil player, but were not taken. No fines and no penalties were assessed, despite the infraction, he said.

“This makes enforcement difficult because there are no consequences,” he said. “This is important because the purpose of these hazmat regulations (for handling, reporting, spills, etc.) is to avoid health and safety risks that the chemicals pose to the public if the chemicals are mishandled. If the chemicals are released to the air, ground or water, it will poison the public resources and cause injury and death.

“To maintain a healthy society, we need enforcement of hazmat regulations so the public is not improperly exposed to hazardous materials.”

Bishop said the job of regulatory agencies at all levels is to protect citizens.

“Their job is not to help these companies make a profit,” he said. “That is the job of other people; it is not the job of the regulatory agency.

“The regulatory agency is being hired by the public to protect them from hazardous materials. The people who take the regulatory jobs should be supported (by their superiors) to do their job regardless of whether a company has to pay a large fine.

“The political process intrudes on this because of the concerns about getting re-elected and the possibility of jobs leaving the area, so these economic issues do intrude. The regulatory process is compromised as a result.”

Bishop outlined future concerns.

“These days with climate change and high-risk oil extraction that is designed to squeeze every bit of oil out of the ground, we are exposing our natural resources of air, water and land to much greater risk,” he said. “We need the regulatory agencies to stand their ground and make sure that companies handle hazardous materials safely. The public can’t just think of the oil company jobs; they need to consider what is safe for the whole community.

“We must not give these companies a free hand in managing hazardous materials.”

What I have learned from my earlier research and in the recent interview with Bishop is that beyond simple hazmat handling, extreme extraction methods pose a significant risk to our underground aquifers. The chemicals used in extreme extraction methods can end up in our precious aquifers.

As we learn more about the chemicals used in extreme extraction methods, we know now that some, such as benzene, are highly carcinogenic. Bishop’s comments mean that we cannot fully trust fallible human beings with toxic chemicals that can kill us.

We have alternatives to fossil fuels, namely solar and wind. Lompoc has great wind. The Santa Ynez Valley has great sunshine and lots of land.

It is time for us to begin protecting ourselves from unacceptable risk by saying NO to oil companies that want to gain profit, while downplaying the risks. It is important to note that the ones who make the profit are not exposed to these risks. They will move from area to area as the oil fields are played out.

Our health must take priority over oil company profit!

— Irv Beiman is a retired psychologist and strategy execution consultant living in the North County and a founding board member of Safe Energy Now! North County. He has authored two books on strategy execution, and published numerous professional journal articles in a variety of fields. Click here for his views on strategic risks and a method for countering them. He can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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