UC Santa Barbara is a paradise surrounded by its strong tides and unique landscape. Many members of our community spend days out on the sea surfing, walking their pets or unwinding after a long day of classes. However, the beauty and environmental safety of our community is currently under the threat of attack by the Cat Canyon proposal.

We, Alexandra Leal Silva and Gordon Hahn, strongly oppose the proposed construction of approximately 750 more oil wells in Northern Santa Barbara County’s Cat Canyon. Currently, three oil companies — ERG Resources, Aera Energy and Petro Rock — are working together to convince county authorities to allow this project near the towns of Garey and Sisquoc. This plan falls short of development and will instead threaten the people of Santa Barbara county with pollution, environmental degradation and a heightened specter of oil spills.

This proposal is so energy and water intensive that it has been ranked among the top 10% of carbon-intensive projects in the world. The oil wells would use the “steam fracking” method which relies heavily on vast amounts of water and natural gas. To supply this gas, new pipelines would have to be constructed along highways 101 and 135. The oil wells would use the gas to heat the water to steam in order to loosen the thick crude oil from the ground. This process requires an estimated seven to eight million gallons of freshwater. Amidst California’s ever-present specter of drought, it does not have the freshwater resources nor the appetite for risk to follow through with such a commitment.

Additionally, this oil scheme threatens the ecological health and air quality of Santa Barbara County’s ecosystems. Aera Energy’s project alone would require bulldozing 300 acres of land, moving three million cubic feet of earth and uprooting 1,500 oak trees. This would destroy the habitats and even lives of animals and plants, hurting our precious ecosystems.

On top of these disastrous changes, the mere functioning of these oil wells would increase the amount of fossil fuel pollutants into the air. The wells generate high amounts of particulate matter, specifically toxic hydrogen sulfide. Also, the proposal would bring an additional 156 oil tanker trips per day to local roadways, polluting more carbon emission gases.  Finally, the oil production process involves toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, xylene and many others, which can impact hormone production and cause cancer and birth defects.

The most insidious danger of this plan is the certainty of an oil spill. Spills are not just possible but expected. The Environmental Impact Reports for the wells anticipate spills from both wells and pipelines. As of 2017, there were as many as 60 active investigations of petroleum contamination being conducted by Sisquoc and Guadalupe. ERG itself estimates 18 spills over the next 10 years. This estimation echoes the company’s track record, having been responsible for 21 oil spills between 2011 and 2015, resulting in over 20,000 gallons of spilled crude.

The Cat Canyon proposal will certainly damage our already-strained environment and endanger the residents of Santa Barbara County.

These spills will endanger the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin, the major source of freshwater for 200,000 people in 12 cities, including Santa Maria, Orcutt and Guadalupe. The most glaring threat of this project is that it will be constructed just 1,900 feet, less than a mile, from Benjamin Foxen Elementary School in Sisquoc.

While oil construction projects are usually framed as creating jobs, the cost of oil and contaminant cleanup can be prodigious. The most recent of the catastrophic oil spills took place only a few years ago in 2015. The Refugio Oil Spill cost taxpayers about $100 million in clean up. Taxpayers and the local community bear the burden of paying the additional damage to ecosystems, loss of animal and plant life and closures of recreational areas.

One would think that Santa Barbara would know better about increasing the presence and of oil corporations; only 50 years ago, our county suffered the disastrous and infamous 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. This calamity brought our community together in tackling the influence of oil companies in our democratic institutions. From this low point, the people of Santa Barbara sparked the epicenter of the modern environmentalist movement, which has only benefited our country with environmental health and sustainable economic growth. It is important to recall this history in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We stand with our fellow residents and organizations that oppose this empty and dangerous project. The Cat Canyon proposal will certainly damage our already-strained environment and endanger the residents of Santa Barbara County.

Students interested in these ongoing efforts can email gmhahn@ucsb.edu or alealsilva@ucsb.edu for more information on how to get involved in the ongoing efforts against the Cat Canyon proposal.