State Water Board Has a Choice: Clean Water or Dirty Oil in Santa Barbara County?

May 21, 2020

SANTA BARBARA, CA Pressure is mounting on the five members of the State Water Board (“Board”) to make the right choice between clean water or dirty oil in Santa Barbara County. Safeguarding the quality of Californians’ drinking water is the mission that guides this agency. Yet, the Board now faces a decision on a proposal that could allow oil and gas operators to inject steam and millions of gallons of toxic wastewater into aquifers beneath the Cat Canyon Oil Field in Santa Barbara County. Injections of oil field fluids threaten to contaminate groundwater used by County residents for drinking and agriculture. Today, the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) submitted a letter on behalf of forty-six organizations asking the Board to direct its staff to reject the proposal and protect our state’s precious water supplies.

Oil operators in the Cat Canyon Oil Field, including Aera Energy and ERG (now TerraCore), asked the State to apply for this exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. These same two operators also propose to drill around 500 new wells directly through the groundwater basin in Cat Canyon and use risky steam injection techniques that threaten the water that local communities depend on for drinking. In order to build out these projects at their immense scale, the oil companies need this exemption approved. Since 2017, EDC, on behalf of our clients, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and Santa Barbara County Action Network (“SBCAN”), has been working to halt these projects.

Forty-six groups are united in opposition to sacrificing groundwater for the oil and gas industry. Local, state, and national groups are jointly demanding that the Board not sign off on this proposal to exempt Cat Canyon oil operations from federal drinking water protections. At the very least, the groups urge the Board to pause the process until a pending study by the U.S. Geological Survey of possible groundwater contamination in Cat Canyon is analyzed. These requests have been echoed by esteemed political leaders, including California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Congressman Salud Carbajal.

“Once an aquifer is contaminated, it is almost impossible to clean,” said Tara Messing, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Defense Center. “Oil operators in Cat Canyon have been illegally injecting their toxic wastewater into non-exempt aquifers for years, potentially affecting water quality in a groundwater basin relied upon by hundreds of thousands of people. Right now, the State Water Board has the opportunity to make the right choice for our communities and environment: do not go forward with this aquifer exemption and avoid catalyzing a massive expansion of risky oil and gas operations in Cat Canyon.”

Local communities surrounding Cat Canyon, including Sisquoc and Los Alamos, rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water. But, parts of the Cat Canyon Oil Field are already ranked among the top 1% for groundwater threats, heightening concerns about further degradation of groundwater if this aquifer exemption is approved.

“Injection wells penetrate through the Basin to other deeper aquifers,” said Ken Hough, Executive Director of SBCAN. “Well casings do fail from time to time, and in one instance, still under litigation, a wastewater injection well did fail, potentially releasing dangerous fluids into Santa Maria Valley’s drinking water.” Hough added.

“The State Water Board is the only backstop we have to protect the most important groundwater basin in our County used for agriculture and clean drinking water, ” said Katie Davis, Chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter. “There is increasing evidence of the risks to water from steam injection and waste disposal, including in the adjacent Orcutt field, in Kern County, and in Ventura County, where there is currently a county moratorium on steam injection for health and safety reasons. We urge the Board not to sign off on this Safe Drinking Water exemption.”

Through their letter, groups are shining a spotlight for the State Water Board to see the magnitude of its decision on this aquifer exemption, which could open the door for a tripling of onshore oil production in the County. Safe, clean, and accessible drinking water for all must be held in higher regard than the oil industry’s bottom line.


The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection. Program areas include climate and energy, and protecting clean water, the Santa Barbara Channel, and open space and wildlife. Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org

The Sierra Club is a national, environmental organization that protects communities, wild places, and the planet. The Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter serves Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Learn more about Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter at http://lospadres.sierraclub.org/

Santa Barbara County Action Network works to promote social and economic justice, to preserve our environmental and agricultural resources, and to create sustainable communities. SB CAN advocates a holistic approach to community planning that integrates housing, open space, and transportation to meet the needs of all members of our community and future generations. Learn more at www.sbcan.org.

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