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Fracking Hearing Draws a Crowd, Along with Range of Views on Oil and Gas Drilling Technique

Assembly committee opens local discussion on industry practice in the Santa Barbara Channel, its oversight, protections and risks

The public turned out in force Friday morning, packing Santa Barbara County’s Board of Supervisors hearing room to speak out on local hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry.

Assemblymen Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, and Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, both members of the Assembly Select Committee on Coastal Protection, hosted the informational hearing about offshore fracking.

The term refers to a procedure in which fluid is injected into cracks in rock formations to enlarge them, allowing more oil and gas to flow into a drilling wellbore, from which it can be extracted.

Friday’s hearing included panelists from the state and federal governments, the oil and gas industry, and environmental organizations.

Stone, the committee’s chairman, said legislators decided to hold a hearing in Santa Barbara because of the volume of drilling in state and federal waters locally as well as the area’s history with oil spills.

“We should have that conversation here,” he said.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, was on hand to make opening comments, calling Santa Barbara County “ground zero for experimental offshore tracking.”

“For a process that has such extensive environmental impacts, we need to have more data,” she said.

Jackson touted her co-authorship of Senate Bill 1132 that, if approved, would suspend well-stimulation techniques like fracking “until we know more about what’s going on.”

Williams said increased revelations about offshore fracking have prompted more activism.

Environmental advocates are circulating a proposed ballot measure to ban fracking in the county, and some people in the audience Friday wore blue shirts with the slogan, “Ask me how to ban fracking in Santa Barbara County.”

Williams said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, is supposed to inform state regulators of any modifications to offshore policy so the state can sign off on the changes.

“That was not done,” he said.

When his office learned about the fracking operations off the coast last summer, he said his staff contacted the the federal agency and got a response — nine months later.

“Their response was, ‘We’ve long treated these unconventional techniques and conventional techniques’,” Williams said.

Jason Marshall from the California Department of Conservation walked the public through the process of hydraulic fracturing and some of the protections that would be added by legislation — Senate Bill 4 — that was enacted last year and goes into effect in 2015.

Enhanced neighbor notification requirements are in the new law as well as required groundwater testing in the area before and after the fracking operations, which is “quite a big step for California,” Marshall said.

There are 23 offshore leases under the State Lands Commission’s purview, 16 of which that are actively producing oil and gas.

Many of California’s oil leases were first permitted in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and have no end dates for production. By law, the state must allow production to continue for as long as those wells are active.

According to Allison Detmer, deputy director of the California Coastal Commission, before last summer her agency had not been aware that fracking was occurring off the coast at all. Since then, she said, the commission has been trying to figure out where that activity has taken place.

The Coastal Commission cannot ban or put in place a moratorium on fracking absent an act of Congress or the Legislature, Dettmer said.

In state waters, oil companies must apply for a coastal development permit for new wells, but since most of the fracking is taking place on older wells that were operating before the California Coastal Act was put in place, “complicated legal issues exist about legal jurisdiction,” Dettmer said.

Environmental protection groups were also given a chance to speak on the panel.

Brian Segee, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Center, said the nonprofit organization supports SB 1132, the Jackson bill. Fracking, he said, is “largely unstudied” and lacked the proper regulatory oversight.

A host of members of the public also spoke, expressing concerns about water quality, seismic activity and impacts on marine life and the environment.

Several people were also present to give the perspective of the oil industry, including representatives from the California Independent Petroleum Association and the Western States Petroleum Association.

Dan Tormey, a principal of Environ Corp., an environmental consulting firm, maintained that protections are in place at the federal level to regulate liquid discharge of fracking fluids from drilling platforms. Effluent toxicity tests are done quarterly, he noted, and no links have been established between seismic activity and the presence of hydraulic fracturing.

Peter Candy, a partner at Hollister & Brace, represented CIPA at the hearing and said he was there to “dispel the notion that offshore California is somehow the Wild West.”

The reality is more complicated, he said, pointing out that the oversight process overlaps and is redundant. The new state law adds even more regulations, he noted.

Candy said he surfs and swims in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“I’m not interested in swimming and surfing in waste from hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “But I personally am not concerned. These risks are being properly managed and addressed.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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