Oil and Water Do Not Mix

by Jim Taylor
July 11, 2013

The June 2013 revised Venoco Paredon Project Description and Overview is preliminary to a more detailed public Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). It lays out a proposed plan to extract oil and natural gas from the hydrocarbon reservoir along Carpinteria’s coastline, from a new drilling operation at Venoco’s Carpinteria Processing Facility (“CPF”), adjacent to City Hall.

 Many residents of Carpinteria are familiar with the original proposal- the soundly defeated 2010 Measure J (71% against). This revised plan differs only slightly, and many of the objections that were raised then are bubbling up once again. One significant difference is that the current proposal will be approved or rejected by the City Council rather than the voters of Carpinteria.

 While in-town oil and gas drilling would have many impacts, including the erection and operation of a 175′ tall drilling rig located next to the beach, between the Carpinteria Bluffs Open Space and a residential neighborhood, one of the most critical issues is the potential effect of such operations on Carpinteria’s water supplies.

 Underlying the Carpinteria Valley, and extending beyond the coastline, is a groundwater basin (“GWB”) that contains a large amount of fresh water. Water flows in to this basin from creeks, underground streams from the mountains, from the percolation of rainfall (when we have it) and from irrigation water returning from the surface. There are numerous water wells drilled into aquifers within this GWB that provide a critical supply of water for agriculture and for the Carpinteria Valley Water District (“CVWD”).

 This bounty of fresh water is obviously a precious resource. If oil, methane gas, introduced chemicals, or even sea water were allowed to contaminate the water source, the damage could be considerable, and quite likely irreversible. The risk is enhanced because of the close proximity of the oil and gas reservoir to the water reservoir. Contamination of our water in connection with the proposed onshore-to-offshore oil and gas drilling could occur from leakage, accidents, earthquakes and from the planned operations themselves – the project plan includes the startling fact that the volume of “produced water”* will eventually reach the same daily volume as the oil itself: 9,000 barrels per day! This water is then treated and re-injected into the ground.

 We will be looking closely at any future EIR for more detailed operation plans, including precise locations of the oil and gas wells. The current project plan, which was determined to be incomplete by City Staff on July 3rd,  as well as the previous Proposed Final Environmental Impact Report (“PFEIR”) are both lacking in this regard.

 A report that analyzed that PFEIR, completed in May 2010 by Dr. Hugo Loaiciga, P.E., Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at UCSB, came to the following conclusions:

 The Carpinteria Groundwater Basin’s (CGWB) aquifers extend from their terrestrial boundaries into geologic formations lying underneath the Pacific Ocean. This is a critical fact because the proposed Venoco Paredon Project extraction wells … would threaten groundwater and surface water resources in the event of very likely well leaks. This is so because well leaks would introduce pressurized hydrocarbons into surrounding aquifers (and formations) that would migrate upwards, thus contaminating groundwater and surface waters, including oceanic waters.
 The PFEIR states that “Three injection wells have been proposed for disposal of produced water, drilling mud, and drilling fluid (waste)”. This injection proposal is inadmissible in the CGWB’s aquifers, which serve important water supply and environmental functions…
 The PFEIR states that: “The southern portion of the Carpinteria Groundwater Basin underlines a portion of the project site and extends beneath the Pacific Ocean…. The exact locations of the injection wells within the Paredon Field are undetermined; however, these wells may pass through groundwater that is used beneficially as a drinking water source and for agricultural production. In addition, the Vaqueros and Sespe formations are in direct contact with overlying unconsolidated sediments of the Santa Barbara Formation, which may be water bearing. Migration of highly saline, injected wastewater from the Vaqueros and Sespe formations (the proposed geologic horizons to be injected) into these unconsolidated sediments could result in impairment of water quality not only in the Santa Barbara Formation, but also the overlying Casitas Formation, from which most of the water is derived in the Carpinteria Groundwater Basin.”
 The PFEIR states that: “the produced (injection) water would be highly saline and could potentially impair groundwater quality in the unlikely event that an injection well leaks in the area near the groundwater.”Actually, well leaks in the proposed Venoco Paredon Project area are not unlikely, but, rather, almost certain to occur due to the inherent high seismicity of the region, which is classified by the California Building Code as a Zone 4, where the risk of earthquakes is highest…
 The high earthquake risk and almost certain damage to wells and subsequent leaks to the aquifers is a strong reason to reject this Venoco Paredon Project.
 The PFEIR acknowledges that there is risk of land subsidence in the Carpinteria region. This would be caused by the proposed Venoco Paredon large-scale extraction of oil and natural gas, which would lower the pore fluid pressure and increase the effective stress in the underlying formations. Yet, this threat is cursorily dismissed by the PFEIR. Subsidence is the drop of terrain elevation by the extraction of subsurface fluids, be they groundwater or petroleum hydrocarbons. In coastal areas, like Carpinteria, land subsidence could be compounded by the rise in sea level that the State of California has identified as a probable impact of climate change due to rising atmospheric temperatures through the 21st century.
 The linkage between hydrocarbon extraction, subsidence, and sea level rise was completely ignored in the PFEIR.
 In general, the mitigation measures cited in many parts of the PFEIR: Venoco Paredon Project and concerning a variety of water resources, environmental, and aesthetics impacts amount to wishful thinking: the PFEIR minimizes impacts and overrates the success potential of mitigation alternatives. The PFEIR does not meet the standard of care of a well written and researched environmental impact assessment.

We will not know until it is published whether the next EIR will adequately address any of the concerns articulated by Professor Loiciga. In addition, there are several other potential serious impacts that must be considered:

Water Use

According to the project proposal, approximately six acre-feet of water per year will be required for operations, 75% of which will be used in drilling. According to the CVWD Groundwater Basis Model Update Project Presentation, the mean outflow from the Carpinteria GWB was 3,906 acre feet per year between 1984 and 2008. The mean inflow to the GWB for the same period was 3,988 acre feet per year, though in 14 of those years years, inflow was less than outflow. (See CVWD chart.) According to County Water Resources, 2012 county-wide rainfall was 66% of normal, and 2013 was 46% of normal. How shall we budget our water resources in light of climate trends?

Consider this headline: “Widespread annual droughts, once a rare calamity, have become more frequent and are set to become the ‘new normal’.” New York Times, August 11, 2012

Fracking

The project proposal states that “Venoco has no plans to hydrofracture any of the Paredon wells.” However, currently the State of California does not require a permit to hydrofracture, and stating that it has no plans is not the same as stating that no fracking will occur over the life of the proposed project. Of course, fracking would introduce a plethora of other chemicals and compounds into the equation, as well as substantially greater water requirements. See our discussion of fracking elsewhere on this website. Fortunately, City Staff alertly picked up on Venoco’s ambiguous wording, and in its July 3rd letter, informed Venoco that were a permit ultimately to be granted by the City, fracking would not be allowed under it.

Climate Change

Currently the operations at the Venoco property are limited primarily to the compression of natural gas. Oil is received by one pipeline from a platform near Anacapa Island, and routed without processing to refineries to the south. There are no oil drilling operations within the city, as the Santa Barbara Channel platforms are in Federal waters.

The Paredon reservoir is estimated to contain 20.5 million barrels of sweet crude oil and 30.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to Venoco. When this fossil fuel is burned it will contribute to the already daunting level of atmospheric CO2, currently at 400 parts per million. In addition, extraction will consume a considerable amount of electricity (undefined in the proposal). Quantifying the carbon footprint of a barrel of oil is complicated by the variety of products that can be refined from it. But the key question is: What will be the cumulative amount of carbon added to the atmosphere over the life of this project?

Our City’s General Plan states:

The goal of the community is: …to preserve the essential character of our small beach town, its family-oriented residential neighborhoods, its unique visual and natural resources and its open, rural surroundings while enhancing recreational, cultural and economic opportunities for our citizens.

In considering the approval of this project, our City’s Community Development Department and City Council will be required (and should be reminded by an actively involved Carpinteria Community) to give serious consideration and substantial weight to the City’s above-stated mission, in the process of evaluating Venoco’s proposed commercial venture. When last the people themselves spoke on the subject (Measure J was defeated 71% to 29%), their voice was loud and clear.

* Wikipedia: Produced water is a term used in the oil industry to describe water that is produced when oil and gas are extracted from the ground. Oil and gas reservoirs have a natural water layer (formation water) that lies under the hydrocarbons. Oil reservoirs frequently contain large volumes of water, while gas reservoirs tend to have smaller quantities. To achieve maximum oil recovery additional water is often injected into the reservoirs to help force the oil to the surface. Both the formation water and the injected water are eventually produced along with the oil and therefore as the field becomes depleted the produced water content of the oil increases.