Two New Thermally Enhanced Onshore Oil Projects

  • Goal: Defeat three dirty and risky thermally-enhanced oil and gas development projects in Santa Barbara County
  • Year Started: 2017
  • Clients: Environmental Defense Center, Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter

More than a century of conventional oil drilling has depleted much of the easy to access oil across California’s south central coast. Now, Santa Barbara County is facing a massive increase in onshore oil and gas production using much dirtier and more dangerous extraction methods known as cyclic steam injection and steam flooding.  If approved, these two projects proposed by ERG (now Terracore) and Aera Energy, would bring hundreds of new oil wells in Cat Canyon Oil Field located about 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria.

Both projects depend upon the use of thermal enhancement techniques, including steam injection and steam flooding, to extract the heavy, viscous crude oil located at depths ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 feet below the surface. These extremely energy-intensive methods involve super-heating enormous amounts of water to around 500 degrees, pumping it underground at high pressure to loosen the oil which is then sucked up to the surface. Drilling through the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin is extremely risky, particularly given that these enhanced oil drilling techniques threaten the County’s precious groundwater resources. Surface water in this area drains into the Sisquoc River or flows out to sea from the San Antonio Creek.  Cat Canyon is an agricultural region with rolling hills used for cattle grazing, vineyards, and other farming operations.  It hosts native oak woodland, coastal scrub, annual grassland, and sensitive species afforded special protection by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Cat Canyon also is home to the towns of Sisquoc and Garey in which people live, work, and recreate.  Toxic air emissions, oil spills, hundreds of tanker trucks, and other sources of soil and water contamination from these three proposed projects pose serious risks to public health and safety, and undoubtedly will cause severe impacts on the immense natural resources and important agricultural operations currently in Cat Canyon.   

On behalf of our clients, EDC will continue to participate throughout the environmental review process concerning these three dangerous proposals, working to convince the County to deny the projects and instead focus on a clean energy future.

ERG (acquired by Terracore Operating Company, LLC):

Aera Energy

  • Develop and operate up to 296 new wells, including oil/gas production wells, steam injection wells, observation wells, non-potable water production wells, water injection wells, and fresh groundwater wells
  • Produce up to 10,000 barrels of oil per day at peak production
  • Removal of approximately 1,500 oak trees
  • Project status: The County’s Draft Environmental Impact Report was released in November 2018.  For the most recent project status please check the County’s website.

Exemption from Federal Safe Drinking Water Standards in Cat Canyon:

To make matters worse, these oil companies seek to utilize steam injection and dispose of their toxic waste into underground aquifers, threatening water supplies in the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin that are critical for drinking and agriculture. On behalf of our clients, EDC is taking the lead in urging the State of California to protect our drinking water by not allowing 30 square miles to be exempt from the protections under the Safe Drinking Water Act. At a minimum, the State should wait for completion of a pending study by the U.S. Geological Survey of the groundwater quality underlying Cat Canyon Oil Field, which began in 2019.

General Conservation Plan and Federally Listed Species:

At the request of the oil companies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working on a General Conservation Plan that, if successful, would “streamline environmental permitting” for oil and gas activities—from exploration to decommissioning—that could harm or kill three federally listed threatened and endangered species, the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, and the Lompoc yerba santa.  EDC will continue our fight to ensuring proper protection of Santa Barbara County’s incredible biodiversity.



Printable factsheet on all three projects [English]  [Spanish].

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