After sucking Santa Cruz County’s reserves dry about 50 years ago, the oil industry moved on. And they’re not going to be allowed back in.
The county is poised to become the first in the state to implement an all-out ban on oil and gas extraction, with proposed amendments to the county general plan coming out as early as February.
“With the advent of fracking, this controversial technique, it’s now become much more likely they would start doing oil and gas development again here,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold says. “It’s my feeling the destructive nature of this practice isn’t worth the benefits it might generate.”
The supervisors voted 5-0 in October for a 10-month moratorium, to keep the industry from getting ahead of them.
Another neighbor, San Benito County, passed regulations on fracking – the practice of injecting pressurized fluid into rock formations to form fissures that allow oil or natural gas to flow – in June. They’ll allow the practice, but with stricter monitoring.
In Monterey County, there are activist groups advocating for local ordinances that resemble each of those approaches: Allow fracking under tight rules, or ban the practice outright.
“Tightening regulations is admirable, but if fracking goes ahead, the risk is still there,” says Heidi Zamzow, spokesperson for the newly formed coalition Monterey County Against Fracking.
The coalition, a local offshoot of Californians Against Fracking, which counts over 150 members, launched Jan. 8 when state regulators from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) held a public hearing in Salinas on proposed fracking regulations for the state.
“DOGGR regulations don’t protect us,” Zamzow says. “Monitoring and documentation are not prevention.”
State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who helped author SB 4, the bill that directed DOGGR to regulate fracking, says it doesn’t prevent communities from going further. “They could ban fracking or impose a moratorium,” he says. “SB 4 created a floor, not a ceiling.”
Another new activist group, Protect Salinas Valley, is pushing for better regulation, rather than a ban. North County activist Ed Mitchell launched the group to advocate for aquifer protections and setbacks, and a ban on fracking in the Salinas Valley.
Mitchell has met with Monterey County Farm Bureau members, who are still considering whether to support his position, and County Planning Director Mike Novo, who’s assembled a small team to work on two fracking ordinances – one short-term version, which could head to the Planning Commission within a couple of months, and a longer-term ordinance. They’re mostly addressing water sources and disposal of hazardous materials.
County planners are also at work on comments to DOGGR to encourage strict state regulations.
“I’m not sure where our long-term ordinance is going to head,” Novo says. “We can regulate the surface impacts. Frankly we don’t have a lot of authority over the downhole side of it [below the surface]. That’s why DOGGR’s regulations are so important; we’ve got to make sure the state has good regulations to protect aquifers.”
This story has been updated to reflect the following clarification in a quotation: Heidi Zamzow said, “[DOGGR] monitoring and documentation are not prevention,” not "monitoring and inspection." The proposed regulations would not necessarily correspond to additional on-site inspections, but document inspections.