Friday, November 16 , 2018, 1:10 pm | Fair 67º


Letter to the Editor: A Climate Scientist’s Perspective on Measure P

My focus for the past decade as a climate scientist has been on the interconnectedness of carbon, water and climate on the planetary scale. Little did I imagine that I would be dealing with these connections at the local level, but the push for high-intensity extraction by the oil industry in our county has pulled me into this community discussion.

Much of climate science is complicated, for our planetary weather systems have many components and defy simple predictions. Over 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that human activity is driving much of the climate change that we are now experiencing, and which will grow in severity.

Statistically, we can predict that there will be more heat waves, floods and droughts and a rise in global sea level as the heat in the atmosphere and in the oceans increases, but we cannot say how fast the sea level will rise or how severe these weather events will be with any precision. We know that there will be tipping points triggered by such phenomena as the melting of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers, but again we cannot be precise about the speed and intensity of the occurrence.

Similarly, there is scientific uncertainty surrounding the extraction techniques of steam injection, acidization and fracking covered by Measure P, partially because there have been few measurements made or scientific studies completed. Most of what has been tracked has been by the oil industry and has either not been shared or is not scientifically reliable. There is considerable anecdotal evidence, however, about accidents, as well as serious health issues, community disruption, decrease land values, environmental pollution (land, air and water) and mixed economic benefits.

Thus, the question is: Are we willing to risk huge consequences with so little information available to us?

Measure P is designed to protect the people and environment of Santa Barbara County against some dangers that can be foreseen and considered likely, and also against others that quite possibly could happen but cannot be predicted.

How does this help us in making sense of Measure P? First, we are dealing with complex processes here in Santa Barbara that are interconnected and that interact with each other in unpredictable ways. It is irresponsible to say there won’t be any accidents. We have the history of the Santa Barbara oil platform blowout in 1969, the Alaska Exxon Valdez accident, the BP disaster in the Gulf, to name only a few of the most egregious examples. More recently, in Santa Barbara County, we have the history of Greka Oil Co. with its 400 plus oil spills, leaks, and safety violations. Even the oil industry recognizes that accidents happen. The more wells there are, the more likely accidents will be. And the oil companies increase the likelihood of accidents by using subcontractors that often cut corners for greater profit.

A major concern, and perhaps my biggest one, is the risk of contamination of our aquifers, together with the reality that once contaminated, they cannot easily be remedied, and certainly not within a few years. A mistake with our water resources cannot be erased. Contaminated underground water is irreversible in my lifetime and probably that of my children as well. Remediating water contamination is usually through dilution. But California lacks excess water to dilute anything.

High intensity petroleum extraction techniques not only compete for our scare water resources, (cyclical steam injection uses seven to nine barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil), but the oil industry, by re-injecting this water after it returns to the surface mixed with boron, heavy metals and radioactive nucleides, all highly toxic, risks contaminating our aquifers — the water we use in agriculture and for drinking. This double risk to our water resources makes it imperative that we seek other ways to get our energy. Fortunately we have the option of renewables — energy from the sun and wind. These clean energy sources are cost competitive today and have virtually no health, environmental or depletion downsides. They are the fastest-growing energy sources today, but we need to accelerate their development even more.

How have I come to a yes vote on Measure P? Essentially as a precautionary attitude and also one of looking at the future health of our region and our children.

Catherine Gautier, professor emerita
UCSB Geography Department

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