World powers are running out of time to slash their use of high-polluting fossil fuels and stay below agreed limits on global warming. This is the conclusion of a U.N. study released last week at a meeting of government officials and climate scientists in Berlin. And soon, Santa Barbara County voters will likely have a chance to choose whether they want be a part of the solution or part of the problem.

An organization called the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians is currently collecting signatures to qualify an initiative to ban fracking and other high-intensity petroleum production in Santa Barbara County for the November ballot. Whether this effort succeeds or fails will likely determine greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade in our county, a critical period during which we need to reduce emissions in order to head off the worst impacts of climate change.

The Water Guardians Initiative proposes a ban on high-intensity oil production. Examples of this kind of oil production include hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, chemicals and sand are blasted underground to break up the rock and extract oil, and acidizing, which adds hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the rock to extract oil and cyclic steam injection, which uses large amounts of water, steam and energy to heat the thick, heavy oil so it will flow more readily. There are many local environmental concerns with these techniques which can lead to air pollution and water contamination, and expansion of these techniques would also lead to large increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the county.

Unlike in other parts of the country where fracking for natural gas occurs (which produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal and oil in California), the fracking of the Monterey Shale is for oil with no potential climate benefit. Since the Monterey Shale formation that extends throughout California is potentially one of the largest shale oil reserves in the country, a ramp up in unconventional oil production would increase state emissions and hinder the state’s ability to take a lead in reducing emissions and transitioning to cleaner sources of energy.

In Santa Barbara County, one company alone — Santa Maria Energy — has 7,700 possible well locations. Using the same rate of emissions per well as their current well project, that works out to 4,971,029 tons of greenhouse gases per year. That is the equivalent of almost one million cars, and it is nearly three times the total current total countywide emissions. That is just to extract the oil; it doesn’t include additional emissions from transporting, refining or burning that oil. It is a staggering number. It means that Santa Barbara County could eliminate a hundred percent of its emissions — stop driving, get all our power from solar and wind, eliminate all agricultural emissions — and still triple emissions in the county just from this oil extraction.

Nor is Santa Maria Energy the only company making big investments in these carbon-intensive forms of oil production. One Chinese mining company, Beijing-based Goldleaf Jewelry Co., just invested $665 million and is ramping up production in North County.

The Water Guardian’s Initiative would protect the air, water and environment that make the county a desirable place to work and live from these outside speculators.

Santa Barbara County should take a lead in rejecting the most polluting forms of oil production and transitioning to clean sources of energy. Of all the things we can do locally in regard to climate change, this would have the highest impact and is critically important at this time. The stakes could not be greater — our actions now will determine the future livability of the planet.

Dr. Catherine Gautier is professor emerita with the geography department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as one of 21 climate scientists who signed a letter to Governor Jerry Brown calling for a halt to fracking and other unconventional well stimulation techniques in the state due to climate concerns.


A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 21, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
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