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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 11:29 pm | Fair 46º


Local Residents Rally Against Fracking in Los Padres National Forest

Santa Barbara County native leads the fight against a proposed project in the Sespe Oil Field in Ventura County

Central Coast native Leif Dautch, left, stands beside Save the Sespe co-founders Colin Cotter and Bill Barnes as they drop off a petition with more than 2,000 signatures at the Forest Service headquarters in Goleta.
Central Coast native Leif Dautch, left, stands beside Save the Sespe co-founders Colin Cotter and Bill Barnes as they drop off a petition with more than 2,000 signatures at the Forest Service headquarters in Goleta.  (Contributed photo)

A proposal to use hydraulic fracturing on eight new oil wells in an area of Los Padres National Forest has caught the attention of some Santa Barbara County residents, who are joining together in opposition alongside neighbors in Ventura County.

The area in question is the Sespe Oil Field in Ventura County, located east of Ojai and north of Fillmore, where fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been going on for decades.

The controversial practice employs high-pressure fluids to create fractures in rock that allow oil and natural gas to escape and flow from a well.

No Santa Barbara County oil companies are currently doing it, and they need a permit to try it.

Fracking has been able to fly under the radar in Sespe mostly because it’s happening on federal land overseen by the U.S. Forest Service within southern Los Padres National Forest, which stretches across Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

Leif Dautch, who grew up in Carpinteria and Ojai and serves as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, fondly remembers hiking near Sespe Creek as a kid.

When he learned of the proposal from Texas-based Seneca Resources Corp. last spring, Dautch co-founded Save the Sespe with two friends, recruiting residents from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to sign a petition in opposition.

Sespe Oil
A Texas oil company wants to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on eight new wells proposed in the Sespe Oil Field inside the Los Padres National Forest. (Contributed photo)

The group gathered more than 2,200 signatures in a week, and sought help from the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians, which spearheaded the failed Measure P initiative to ban fracking locally.

“People had no idea it was happening,” Dautch said.

Last month, the proposal was put on temporary hold — a decision announced the same week a new report outlined the potential dangers of fracking in the area.

That environmental impact report was drafted because of SB 4, which the governor signed in late 2013 to provide the public with more detailed information related to impacts from oil well stimulation across the state.

The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) within the state’s Department of Conservation conducted the review, which found that fracking in the Sespe could pose “significant and unavoidable” environmental impacts to air quality, biological resources, climate change, worker safety and more.

Sespe was one of three areas specifically mentioned because of its fracking history, with the other two in Los Angeles County.

DOGGR will host six public hearings to discuss the EIR, the first (and closest) of which will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Ventura College Performing Arts Center.

Dautch said Save the Sespe supporters will rally outside before the hearing at 4 p.m. “to drum up energy.”

Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Santa Barbara-based Los Padres Forest Watch, also plans to voice concerns before the March 16 deadline for public comment. 

According to the 10-year-old organization, Los Padres National Forest is the only California forest allowing oil drilling and fracking to occur, with more than 350 Sespe oil wells fracked since the 1960s.

Land in and around the oil field is important habitat for endangered California condors, Kuyper said, and the Sespe Creek feeds downstream into Fillmore’s water supply.

“Once the state finalizes the environmental document, future site-specific proposals could rely on it,” Kuyper said. “That’s why it’s so important for them to get it right in this stage. It’s been a lot of work to even get these issues up to the forefront.”

Save the Sespe also sought help from elected officials including Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

“I remain very concerned about the impacts of fracking on our environment and water supplies, particularly in sensitive areas like Los Padres National Forest,” she said in a statement Monday. “I will continue to work with federal agencies to ensure our sensitive public lands are fully and properly protected.”

The final EIR is due July 1 and could be used by oil producers, cities and by DOGGR during future project reviews. It’s also possible that more regulations could be released in the future, said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the department of conservation.

Seneca Resources Corp., which has been operating in the Sespe Oil Field for more than 20 years, has been open and transparent about its oil and gas activity and is currently working through the Bureau of Land Management approval process, since it’s federal land, said Rob Boulware, Seneca's stakeholder relations manager.

The state's EIR concluded that most significant impacts could be reduced to "less-than-significant," Boulware said, and Seneca's condor protection measures have resulted in not a single California condor ever being harmed. The company was named Operator of the Year by California’s Bureau of Land Management in 2012, the last year the award was presented, he added.

"The truth is that hydraulic fracturing in the Sespe Oil Field is performed in the safest possible manner by Seneca Resources, which provides Californians with the affordable, reliable energy on which they rely," Boulware said. "To suggest the EIR’s findings warrant banning hydraulic fracturing altogether in the Sespe is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. It’s unfortunate that those with ulterior motives and hidden political agendas continue to ignore and distort the facts on hydraulic fracturing. We understand legitimate questions exist and those questions deserve a fact-based dialogue. Unfortunately, some people continue to engage in posturing based on misinformation, not facts."

DOGGR confirmed that to date, there’s no scientific evidence showing that well stimulation has caused environmental harm.

“The new regulations for the practice created under SB 4 are designed to enhance already existing well construction standards that protected groundwater, and will provide additional assurance to the public and transparency in the regulatory process,” Drysdale said. “There are interim regulations in force now, and the final regulations will take effect July 1. An ongoing scientific study and the EIR will inform future policy about the use of well stimulation in the state.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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