California Vineyard Gets Fracked

Petroleum extraction sneaks into Santa Barbara wine country

by Jane Firstenfeld
santa barbara vineyard fracking
Venoco secured drilling permits near Los Alamos, where locals say it is performing hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, for oil.
Los Alamos, Calif.—Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial petroleum extraction method better known as hydrofracking or fracking, has begun in a Santa Barbara County vineyard. Oil drilling, including highly visible offshore platforms, has been going on in the Central Coast county for decades, but fracking is new here. Some area residents are questioning how and why Venoco, a Denver, Colo.-based energy company, was allowed to proceed. Spokesman Mike Edwards confirmed to Wines & Vines that Venoco had fracked the two Los Alamos wells, but denied the company planned any more in the area.

According to Doug Anthony, deputy director of Santa Barbara’s planning and development energy division, Venoco requested two drilling permits near Los Alamos, as they have done routinely for many oil wells in the county. What makes fracking different is its use of massive quantities of water and “proprietary formulas” of chemicals to loosen shale substrata and extract petroleum: most commonly natural gas, but in this case oil.

“They injected. We found out after the fact, and they won’t do it again,” Anthony told Wines & Vines. Worried about ground water levels and quality, ranchers were upset, he said. “We don’t know how big an issue it is. The two wells were fairly deep, below the ground water. In the future, they will have to provide a California Environmental Impact Report,” he said.

The current wells are installed on a 3,100-acre cattle ranch, where owner Steve Lyons also grows some 110 acres of vineyard, planted to premium winegrapes between 1990 and 2008. The drilling was not his choice: Previous owners had retained the mineral rights, allowing Venoco access to his property.

The unsightly operation is, fortunately, separated from the rest of the ranch by a ridge and barbed wire; it’s posted with signs warning of carcinogenic chemicals. A pipeline to dispose of toxic wastewater runs through Lyons’ vines.

“This did not happen with our permission,” added Tom Prendiville, general manager of the ranch. “Sustainable land is part of my DNA.” He noted that a subterranean aquifer runs away from the vineyard, so vines are not contaminated.

“When the permits were issued, people on the West Coast didn’t know about fracking,” Prendiville commented. Eastern and Midwestern residents have heard more about the controversial process. Following heated debate, New York slapped a temporary moratorium on fracking, after intensive lobbying from the Finger Lakes wine industry, among other interests.

santa barbara vineyard fracking
Looking east from the same ridge, vineyards flourish in Santa Barbara County.

No regulations in California
Despite an abundance of petroleum deposits, to date California has no regulations on fracked wells, does not record their numbers or location, nor require operators to reveal what chemicals they use. A bill passed by the state assembly, if enacted, would force reporting.

According to Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, however, “The Assembly bill has been watered down to where it is meaningless. I’m not in favor of (the oil industry) being able to tell us after the fact. It’s like saying, ‘Let us use nuclear waste and tell you five years later.’ It’s not prudent or transparent: It’s not good government.”

Carbajal expressed various concerns about fracking, including the fact that it is not addressed under the federal Safe Drinking Act (U.S. Rep. Lois Caps of Santa Barbara will convene a panel Sept. 1 to investigate.)

“This could have implications for drinking, surface and ground water and air quality,” Carbajal noted. Fracking could affect water, the environment and agriculture, food supplies and the county’s tax base.

Carbajal suggested that oil companies would be wise to work with local, state and federal agencies: “Our goal is not to stifle their ability to achieve, our objective is to preserve public health.” He likened the drillers to Big Tobacco, living in a fantasy world of denial. “Eventually, they had to pay,” he noted.

Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, encouraged open communication on all sides. “Our entire industry must understand how it can affect our agriculture. Our position is to nip it in the bud.”

What can wine industry do?
Stephan Bedford owns Los Alamos’ only winery, 5,000-case Bedford Winery. He, too, called for open dialogue about fracking’s future in Santa Barbara and throughout California. “Who has jurisdiction?” he questioned, citing fire danger and environmental controls. “No one takes a central role, even to get baseline readings” of contamination, he complained.

Bedford is particularly concerned about reduced water tables and potential saltwater intrusion into the vital aquifer. Transportation of wastewater is another worry: Are aged pipe casings sufficient to the task?

Wine is a growth industry in Santa Barbara County (five new wineries since March bring the county’s total to 183, according to WinesVines DATA), but “the opposition frames us as anti-growth,” Bedford said.  “We must use the technology we have to implement safety procedures,” for transporting both water and oil. Fortunately, he said, “There is starting to be grassroots reaction and public concern.”

He lauded 3rd District supervisor Doreen Farr, who is leading local mobilization. Farr told Wines & Vines that local governments can be more nimble than state and federal levels.

“It’s incumbent for local government to take a close look, see what we can do to tighten regulations and really scrutinize what’s going on,” Farr insisted. In addition to tightening application and review processes, she called for an enhanced “penalty phase” for operators that are out of compliance. “We need an enforcement tool that’s up to the task.” Keeping the pressure on Sacramento and Washington, D.C., is also imperative, she said. 

“If enough members of the public make their voices heard by calling, writing, emailing, attending hearings, it can be very effective,” Farr pointed out. The Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors has already held two public hearings about hydrofracking; a third is scheduled for Sept. 20. Email supervisor Farr for details.

Posted on 08.23.2011 - 09:59:38 PST

Many kudos to you for the fine article. I was shocked to hear of the fracking operations ANYWHERE in California in view of the relatively unstable geology here. I seem to recall reading that fracking clearly increases earthquake danger wherever it has been used. Bad enough in Finger Lakes but just plain greedy/crazy in coastal California.
san diego, CA USA