Santa Barbara County has had a decades long feud with the oil and gas industry in the county. They have shut down most of those operations.

The goal: To rid the county of those evil polluters and placate naive environmental activists who oppose the use of fossil fuels.

While it’s true many of these oil/gas extraction sites have had unplanned releases (spills) in the past, it’s also true that they promptly cleaned up their mess and improved their processes to avoid spills.

Natural seeps occur frequently beneath the sea and on land as the oil seeks release from the confines of the earth. One of these locations is owned, operated and maintained by the county of Santa Barbara in Toro Canyon. Decades long, uncontrolled leaks continue to cause concern.

On Aug. 14, 2021, Noozhawk reported there have been several leaks at the site in the last two years. They reported after one leak that “So far, crews have collected a number of dead animals, including 17 small birds, 13 bats and one squirrel.”

And in January of this year, Noozhawk again reported problems at the site.

“The oil is from a natural seepage well built by the Occidental Oil Company in 1882,” Public Works spokesman Leal Wageneck said in a press release. “The Environmental Protection Agency retrofitted the site to prevent seepage in the 1990s by building an oil and water separator facility at the well. The county has monitored that facility since 2009.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors, acting at government speed (after a two-year wait) “plans to pay $3.72 million to replace a troubled oil-water-separator system in Toro Canyon.”

So, the county of Santa Barbara which has the most stringent regulatory framework in the state that it uses frequently to punish oil/gas producers, has been unable to apply those same standards to the only site the county has been responsible for since 2009.

If this were a private producer, the county would have shut down its operation immediately, and aggressively monitored the cleanup and repair efforts.

In this case the district attorney, who is an elected official and not beholden to the Board of Supervisors, was concerned.

Noozhawk reported that “Former District Attorney Joyce Dudley sued the county over its response to a nearly year-long leak that started in 2020, alleging there was ‘very little effort from the county to contain it or to stop oil from flowing into Toro Canyon Creek.’”

The case is still pending, so we’ll see how that turns out.

So, it appears that all that concern to prevent the inadvertent release of gooey oil is limited to private operators. But, when the county of Santa Barbara is responsible for the pollution from the only oil facility the county manages, it can take several years to react and/or simply ignore responsibility to be good stewards of the land by failing to periodically visit the facility to see if it’s leaking.

Something needs to change in this county, and it starts with elected officials who allow public agencies they oversee to fail to follow regulations that they require taxpaying industries to comply with.

And it’s ironic that if the lawsuit filed by former DA Joyce Dudley results in a fine for the county, it will be taxpayers who pay the penalty, not the officials responsible for allowing the spill.

County Funds Replacement System for Leaky Toro Canyon Oil Well | Local News | Noozhawk

2021 seep: Natural Seepage Draws Cleanup Crew, Wildlife Rescuers to Toro Canyon Creek | Local News | Noozhawk

January 2023 seep: Oil in Toro Creek Traced to Natural-Seepage Well Built in 1882 | Local News | Noozhawk