July 3 and 4, 2023, were the hottest days ever recorded on Earth!

This occurred while the two primary causes of global warming, CO2 and methane, increased (CO2 50%, methane 150%).

In this context, Santa Barbara County appropriately established a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, from 2018 levels, by 2030. The county is now in the process of developing a Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

Such plans admit the reality of climate change, and teach us that we must learn to adapt to our now-overheated planet.

However, we know what climate change adaptations are needed:

Flooding: Berms, flood walls, relocating infrastructure and new flood-conscious building codes

Severe heat: Staying out of direct sunlight, finding a cool spot and staying hydrated

Wildfires: Roof types, proximity of structures to combustible areas, water supply, fire response times, removal of flammable vegetation, fire breaks, evacuation plans, building codes and public education

Drought: Water conservation and water recycling, drought-tolerant plantings and removing water hungry lawns

What we don’t know is how Santa Barbara County is going to stop its oil drilling.

Fossil fuel emissions are the primary source of climate change globally. In addition to climate adaptations, the county must be focused on ridding itself from all its fossil fuel production.

Santa Barbara County has been an oil producing municipality since the 19th century, with the Santa Barbara Channel having its first offshore well in Summerland in 1896.

Oil energy has the highest carbon footprint of all energy types. Indirect greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations include both carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

Today, these are around 5,200 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon-dioxide equivalent. One million metric tons is roughly equal to the average annual emissions of 35 commercial airliners, 216,000 passenger vehicles and 115,000 homes in the United States.

These emissions, which do not include any associated with the actual consumption of the fuel, amount to around 15% of the energy sector’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Add in another 30% to total emissions from  producing, refining and transporting oil, and  production rises to 45% of our greenhouse gas emissions nationally.

This not even factoring in emissions from the burning of oil through transportation (transportation accounting for 50% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.)

Based on April production levels, Santa Barbara County has 6.8 thousand wells on file (679 producing). In April, the county produced 207.7 thousand barrels of oil.

Adding in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, tricounty oil production was 644,5 thousand barrels in April. 

California ranks third as an oil-producing state, behind Texas and North Dakota. Despite our oil production, the state is targeting a carbon neutral economy by 2045.

Regulating oil production in California is, to a significant degree, decentralized; ensuring that counties have excessive power and influence over shutting down oil production. Santa Barbara County has a successful leadership history in this regard.

In 2020, Aera Energy (later sold to Terracore) withdrew its new drilling proposal in Cat Canyon near Santa Maria prior to the Planning Commission voting on the project. The project would have created 760 new oil wells contributing 700,000 metric tons of COequivalent per year.

Granted, there was well-organized opposition to the project from the environmental community and public. However, the writing was on the wall regarding how the Planning Commission would have voted.

Federal, state and local control of oil development is complicated and shared. However, the county, through the Systems Safety & Reliability Review Committee, has regulatory oversight of onshore oil processing facilities.

In other words, it has inspection and permit jurisdiction over all aboveground activities. There is no reason a countywide measure could not rule out new wells and establish a process leading to a phase-out of all land-based oil production.

Such a phase-out would both support California’s climate goals and set a leadership example for other counties.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill changed Santa Barbara and environmental activism forever.

As the lack of international and national effectiveness for addressing the transition away from fossil fuels has shown, it is now up to local actions to do this.

Actions like those taken by Santa Barbara County are leading the way. It should continue by banning all oil drilling production in the county.

The hottest days in the year are only going to get hotter as we continue to drill, pump and use fossil fuels. We are in an emergency situation.

The house is literally burning. Shutting down oil production can no longer wait.

Environmental lawyer Robert Sulnick represented the community of Casmalia in litigation against the Casmalia Resources Hazardous Waste Landfill, co-founded the American Oceans Campaign with Ted Danson, and is a partner in the Santa Barbara environmental consulting firm Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises. The opinions expressed are his own.