A hike through fracked wilderness

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Fracking in the Sespe in 2013. Photo: Los Padres ForestWatch

This month, the first state-wide Environmental Impact Review on fracking was published. The report spans over 2,500 pages and will be used to guide future proposals to frack anywhere in California. It focuses on three specific proposals at oil and gas fields. One of which is in the Sespe Wilderness, just a short drive from Santa Barbara.

Goodenough Road gets you to from downtown Fillmore to the base of the Sespe Wilderness. This section of Los Padres National Forest sits between a Condor sanctuary and the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge. From the end of the road, it’s all wilderness.

And oil production.

Leif Dautch and his dad, BD, are the trail guides. Dautch has been fighting oil giant Seneca Resources, a Texas-based company that owns 250 active oil wells, over 100 oil pads, 2 dozen miles of roads and a large network of pipelines, storage tanks, water containers and fencing in the Sespe.

But that’s not what he’s specifically concerned about. His crusade is against Seneca’s recent proposal to frack eight new oil and gas wells in the Sespe.

Streams like this flow to the Santa Clara River Watershed. Photo: Kevin Corcoran

“Here you are,” says Dautch, “at the end of a dirt road in the middle of wilderness, surrounded on one side by a Condor Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge on the other, and then a federally protected wilderness area on the third side, and this of all sites you’re going to frack right next to a freshwater stream? That just seems crazy to me.”

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of shooting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals at rock, deep below the earth’s surface, to release the gas inside. Environmentalists say it pollutes air and water, can induce earthquakes and uses more water than drought-stricken California can spare.

Those environmental concerns, however, have largely gone ignored by federal regulators.

Anti-fracking activists. Photo: Justin Sullivan

“Before this, fracking didn’t require a permit, and so there was no official action that would trigger the environmental study requirement,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres Forestwatch, a forest advocacy group based out of Santa Barbara. “Fracking would go unchecked. It could be done whenever the oil companies felt the need to frack.”

But, last year, things changed for oil companies. A California law signed by governor Jerry Brown required oil companies to obtain permits for fracking. To help guide the decision making process, the EIR on fracking was published. Drafted by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the report spans over 2,500 pages and focuses on proposed oil and gas well stimulation activities at three specific oil and gas fields: Wilmington, Inglewood, and Sespe.

The report found seven “significant and unavoidable” impacts of fracking in the Sespe:

Fragile habitats and protected areas surround the Sespe Oil Field. (Click to enlarge)
  • Pollutants that violate air quality standards or contribute substantially to an existing or projected air quality violation
  • Sensitive receptors to substantial pollutant concentrations
  • Objectionable odors affecting a substantial number of people
  • Hazards to the public or environment through crude oil transport and reasonably foreseeable accidents and releases
  • Hazard to the public or environment through a reasonably foreseeable accidental release of hazardous materials due to a hose leak or connection leak while pumping well stimulation treatment fluids
  • Increased risks to public safety by exposing the public to accidental hazardous materials releases from pipelines
  • Transportation of hazardous materials
Seneca’s oil activity in the Sespe. (Click to enlarge)

In an email, Seneca’s stakeholder relations manager Rob Boulware said the company is in the process of reviewing the changes this document will have on its operations.

Dautch hopes this statewide document is the first step in making better educated decisions on where fracking should be allowed, and where it shouldn’t. If he had it his way, Dautch wouldn’t see drilling and fracking happening adjacent to schools or, in the Sespe’s case, near a town’s water source and in U.S. Forest Service Land.

This year, Pennsylvania placed a moratorium on fracking in state parks and forests. New York banned fracking altogether. But, those states don’t have the oil California has sitting underneath it.

Now there’s some science to go along with that oil, too.

Photo: Leif Dautch