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Battling oil 

Big Oil's alternative facts are already seeping into SLO County

The Coalition to Protect SLO County has successfully gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot this November to ban oil well expansion, fracking, and acidizing in the county, but their work has just begun. Over the coming months, they will have to counteract misinformation from the oil industry.

If Monterey County is any indicator, this will be no easy task. In April 2016, the grassroots group Protect Monterey County collected enough signatures for a similar ballot measure. In the ensuing campaign, the oil industry-backed group Monterey County Citizens for Energy Independence spent more than $5 million to oppose Measure Z. The group's spokesperson, Sabrina Lockhart, who was also the communications director for the California Independent Petroleum Association, told the press and county that "California already [had] the strictest environmental regulations in place." This was a creative interpretation of reality: while California may have strict environmental regulations, our state regulatory agency, the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), is not enforcing them. In 2015, the Associated Press revealed that DOGGR had granted more than 2,500 permits to illegally inject toxic oil field wastewater into aquifers that were protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). And, compared to other counties, Monterey had very few oil extraction regulations. Despite the tornado of misinformation—and being outspent 18 to 1—Measure Z passed by 56 percent that November.

Creative interpretations of reality have already arrived in SLO County. On May 3, Christine Halley, the spokesperson for Sentinel Peak Resources, which owns the Arroyo Grande oil field, told New Times that Sentinel Peak did not plan to drill more wells ("Fracking initiative gets 20,000 signatures"). In the next breath, she said that future expansion was inevitable. Then, she merely stated what we already know: The EPA was still deciding whether or not to grant an exemption for that portion of the aquifer, which is protected under the SDWA. What she didn't say was whether the 70 to 80 illegal injection wells at the oil field were still pumping toxic wastewater into the Arroyo Grande aquifer that lies beneath the oil field.

These equivocations pale in comparison to the April 26 letter to the editor ("Arroyo Grande oil field is a net water producer") in which Halley, in a complete inversion of reality, described the oil field as a "net water producer." It is true that the oil field releases 500,000 gallons of purified water into Pismo Creek every day. However, very little of this water is reclaimed: Most of its runs straight into the Pacific. Common sense dictates that if we are "concerned about water supply," we should protect the aquifer and leave the water in it for future use.

Instead, Sentinel Peak is simultaneously depleting and polluting the aquifer. Every barrel of oil Sentinel Peak pumps up is accompanied by 19 barrels of toxic, polluted water. This "produced water," as the industry calls it, is groundwater that gets released during the drilling process when steam and proprietary chemicals are pumped into injection wells to create pressure changes that release oil. The undisturbed water in the Arroyo Grande aquifer could potentially be used as drinking water, which is why it is still protected under the SDWA. Once the groundwater is mixed with the chemicals used in steam injection, it becomes toxic: Produced water is a form of hazardous waste. It's saltier than seawater and contains lead, chromium, aluminum, and high levels of petrochemicals like benzene, which is a carcinogen.

Sentinel Peak pulls up more than 1 million gallons of produced water every operating day. Nearly 550,000 gallons of this toxic water are re-injected into the ground as steam for the next round of drilling. Another 500,000 gallons are treated in the reverse osmosis plant and released into Pismo Creek. The final 180,000 gallons, along with the waste products from reverse osmosis, are injected into wastewater disposal wells. The wells are designed to allow the toxic, polluted water to seep out into the spaces between rocks.

Halley goes on to describe the oil field's economic contribution to our county: 20 employees and 100-plus contractors. Again, the lack of a larger perspective distorts this information. The continued pollution and depletion of the aquifer is a direct threat to the county's agricultural industry, which employed 3,000 people in 2016, and the tourism industry, which created more than 400 jobs in 2016 alone. On top of this, Sentinel Peak is based in Colorado with a California office in Bakersfield. SLO County bears the environmental costs of oil drilling, while the profits go to a company headquartered in Colorado, with shareholders from around the world. And the costs are significant: aquifer endangerment, fossil fuel emissions from burning natural gas to produce steam, noxious air, and, most significantly, the risk of an injection-induced earthquake along the Arroyo Grande fault, which forms the northern border of the oil field.

In addition to the above-ground destruction, such an earthquake could allow wastewater to migrate and further contaminate wells. Even without an earthquake, injected toxic waste could be migrating into the Santa Maria basin, which provides water for more than 46,000 people in the Five Cities region.

As a county, we need to take our groundwater and resources into our own hands. The Arroyo Grande oilfield is one of the least productive oil fields in the state. There is a small, finite amount of oil left that will require increasingly resource-intensive processes to produce. All of this is in direct contrast to the legislation we've passed on the county and state level that emphasizes renewable energy.

Instead of beating the dead horse that is fossil fuels, it's time to look to the future and shift our focus toward renewable energy, which will produce more, longer-lasting jobs without the negative side effects that accompany oil drilling. Δ

Katie Ferrari is fighting against Big Oil. Send comments through the editor at or write an opinion piece and send it to

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