Rally outside oil meeting in Santa Maria
Opponents of oil drilling rally outside a California Geologic Energy Management Division workshop in Santa Maria on Wednesday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Proposed buffer zones around oil and gas operations drew support and opposition from audience members at a Santa Maria meeting where the California Geologic Energy Management Division staff sought comments on new rules proposed for the industry.

More than 200 people attended the meeting Wednesday night at the Santa Maria Veterans Memorial Community Center as CalGEM develops health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas operations.

“This meeting is part of our initiative stemming from a new name, new mission, which is to make sure that we’re protecting public health, safety and the environment,” said Pat Abel, who leads CalGEM’s Coastal District. CalGEM is the new name for the agency long known as the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR. 

Some audience members lobbied for oil and gas operations to have a 2,500-foot setback from residences, schools, parks and other public locations.

“We request that CalGEM put in place a sufficient setback from oil and gas operations to protect the public from toxic air and water pollution, noise and fires caused by this development,” said Brian Trautwein, Environmental Defense Center’s environmental analyst and Watershed Program coordinator.

But oil industry representatives questioned the need for a buffer.

P. Anthony Thomas, vice president of external affairs for the California Independent Petroleum Association and the executive director for the California Natural Gas Producers Association, said the CalGEM workshops will determine the fate of in the industry. 

“I would you to base your decisions on facts and science, and not a political knee-jerk reaction,” Thomas said of the push to require buffer zones.

The EDC’s Tara Messing urged CalGEM to ban new permits for drilling through groundwater basins used for drinking water, and to put a hold on new permits in fields where the U.S. Geological Survey is studying groundwater quality until the federal report’s release.

Additionally, Messing called for a requirement to regularly test produced water — a mixture of oil and water — for all steam injections operations, with an online database of results.

Many speakers cited the existing applications from three firms seeking to install hundreds of new oils wells in Cat Canyon, in northern Santa Barbara County. 

“The projects will use risky oil extraction techniques and inject millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into underground aquifers. We oppose these projects because we cannot afford to put our drinking water at risk,” Messing said. 

Aera Energy is one firm seeking Cat Canyon permits and Aera adviser Susan Perrell said oil firms operate under a number of regulations with ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance.

“Before we draft additional rules, we think it’s going to be a great idea to look at the rules already in place,” Perrell said. “Perhaps we can identify a gap. Perhaps we can identify a rule-making opportunity that will further protect public health.

Aera Energy rep at Santa Maria meeting

Aera Energy’s Susan Perrell speaks during a Santa Maria workshop hosted by the California Geologic Energy Management Division on Wednesday night about new rules for the industry. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“Aera supports strong environmental regulation that allows for producing energy that California needs while protecting human health and the environment,” she added. 

The Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter‘s Katie Davis said she was concerned about new drilling in high-fire-hazard zones.

The oil industry cares about health and safety of the community because they live and work here, Ben Oakley, Western States Petroleum Association California Coastal Region manager said.

“We’re certainly not always going to agree on everything but let’s start on what we do agree on — everyone deserves clean air, clean water and to have access to safe, affordable and reliable energy,” Oakley said. 

Other speakers included UCSB student activists, oil industry workers, oil and gas royalty holders, and residents. During the meeting, members of the crowd applauded, and even cheered, after hearing comments they supported.

Before the meeting, approximately 30 people, some of whom arrived via bus from Santa Barbara, rallied in front of the building to oppose oil drilling.

Wednesday’s workshop was the third of 10 planned around California as part of the public rule-making process. 

Meetings already held in Arvin and Bakersfield will be followed by workshops in Oakland, Coalinga, Oxnard, Los Angeles, Montebello, Long Beach and Sacramento, and the schedule of meetings is available online here.

Written comments also can be submitted through April 10.

They can be sent by e-mail to CalGEMRegulations@conservation.ca.gov or by regular mail to Department of Conservation, ATTN: Public Health near Oil Gas Rulemaking, 801 K Street, MS 24-02 Sacramento, CA 95814.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.