A climate emergency too close to home

We have long known Ventura County was extremely vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. Our fires, droughts and threatened coastal infrastructure put us at risk.

But it was still shocking to learn from a report in the Washington Post that we are the fastest-warming county in the lower 48 states. With a temperature increase of 2.6 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, our warming has already exceeded the 2 degrees Celsius threshold set by the Paris Climate agreement. 

We have seen the catastrophic effects of a warming world in the fierce winds that whipped the Thomas and Woolsey fires out of control and we will not forget the suffering it caused our families and neighbors.

Then we learned from a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that our coastal waters are acidifying at twice the global rate, threatening life in the ocean and with it our fishing industry. This is a lesser known effect of a changing climate.

The push for policies that will slow the catastrophic effects of climate change needs to begin everywhere and at once.

Ventura County must make a bold statement about climate with its General Plan Update. This is the document that sets the policies that drive all land use decisions for the next 20 years. Indeed, at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting dozens of speakers asked for more local policies that will help the county reduce emissions.

Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) has analyzed the county’s General Plan draft with the help of nationally recognized air quality expert Dr. Steven Colome and the prestigious environmental law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP.

While its goals are laudable, the county’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) fails to provide enough emissions reduction to meet the state-mandated climate goals. The plan is seriously incomplete and lacks the technical and scientific input needed.

Climate change is caused by fossil fuel production and consumption. The CAP addresses the consumption side by merely encouraging, but not requiring, electric fuel vehicles and clean power for homes and businesses. But Ventura County is the third largest oil and gas producing county in California. As such, we must do our part to reduce oil production through thoughtful, rigorous policy to phase it out. This is not addressed.

The county is accepting comments through February on the Environmental Impact Report that accompanies the update. To submit your comments, go to https://vcrma.org/vc2040.org/review. CFROG has a list of talking points to use at www.cfrog.org.

We have seen that our state's early, groundbreaking policies to reduce emissions have spread to other states, the nation and the world. Here in Ventura County, where the effects of climate change have become frighteningly real, we are motivated now more than ever.



Petrochem property changes hands

A company named Real Estate Recovery Capital has purchased the controversial Petrochem property north of Ventura from its longtime owner. But the broad coalition of 13 organizations led by CFROG will keep right on vehemently insisting that this site in the gateway to the beautiful Ojai Valley be put to a use befitting its sensitive river habitat.

From its inception in the 1950s as a fertilizer manufacturer, to a later use as a refinery for crude oil which processed 20,000 barrels a day and stored hundreds of thousands more in tanks, the property has been controversial and harmful to nearby Ventura Avenue residents and the Ojai Valley airshed.

Activists, including CFROG and other community groups, packed a small conference room on Oct. 14 to protest the last owner's proposal for the site, an auto and contractor storage yard. Our group, the Petrochem Appeal Alliance (PAA), believes it is time for this ecologically sensitive area to move from polluting uses of the land to those which contribute to sustainable practices and preservation of this valuable natural area.

We are glad to see it change hands away from the original owner who allowed a highly polluting operation along the Ventura River.

The following organizations filed a joint appeal of the decision by the Ventura County Planning Director to approve a transportation and contractor services storage yard for the site:

Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas
Environmental Coalition of Ventura County
Food and Water Action
Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
Friends of the Ventura River
Ventura Land Trust
Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation
California Trout, Inc.
Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter
Westside Community Council
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura
Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE)

CFROG will monitor proposals for this site and advocate for our residents.


What comes up must go back down: The dirty story of oilfield and hazardous waste disposal in Ventura County

Explosions of toxic waste. First responders injured. District Attorney raids. $3.6 million in fines. Company owners indicted. Others flee the country to avoid prosecution. 

It sounds like a bad TV movie, but it’s the status quo for Ventura County’s two now-shuttered commercial oilfield waste disposal sites, Santa Clara Waste Water and Anterra.

CFROG has long pointed out the dirty processes involved in oil drilling. When project applications are submitted, permit conditions are violated and regulators hold hearings, we are there with scientific review, legal analysis and public testimony.

Waste disposal sites deserve special scrutiny. To explain, when oil is extracted a large amount of water comes up with it. This is called “produced water” and it must be disposed of properly. Chemical-laden fluids used in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” must also be discarded safely. Some oil operations have injection wells onsite to put this fluid back into the ground. It can also find its way into pits or is recycled. Others must dispose of it offsite.

At least 15 wastewater injection wells in Ventura County have been under investigation by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board for injection into non-exempt aquifers. These aquifers can be sources of water for human consumption and agricultural uses.

In Ventura County, both Santa Clara Waste Water and Anterra have accepted oilfield wastes. And both companies have a long history of problems. 

The Santa Clara Waste Water facility in Santa Paula is the site of a 2014 chemical explosion which left several first responders permanently disabled and unable to work. CFROG was on the scene taking photographs and collecting information from the fire department.

The company was ordered to pay $3.6 million in restitution to the victims and multiple employees of the firm were indicted, convicted or pled guilty on various charges. The facility now has an application to reopen under a new name, but the City of Oxnard has filed multiple objections. CFROG has also filed comments.

In the proposal to restart the facility, the company wants to use the old 12-mile pipeline to dispose of its toxic waste through the Oxnard Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Oxnard vehemently protested the application, citing its past detection of radioactive waste from Santa Clara Waste Water in the pipeline  — consistent with oil and gas production — that it is unable to treat. The city also believes its 60-year-old pipeline, now exhibiting significant corrosion, is not sufficient to move the sort of waste the Santa Paula facility discharges. They further point to a proposal to handle a chemical at the facility similar in composition to the one that caused the explosion, and the potential for hazardous waste from the facility to enter Oxnard's drinking and agricultural water supply untreated.

We are watching this carefully while the county determines whether the application will be scheduled for a hearing.

Anterra has also been making news. In 2014 the Ventura County District Attorney raided the company’s offices looking for evidence Anterrra had been putting hazardous oilfield waste into its injection wells. It is only permitted for non-hazardous waste, but prosecutors believed the rules were not being followed. CFROG helped reveal some of the practices thanks to a whistleblower who got in touch with us. After the DA filed charges, those criminally involved fled the country, making prosecution difficult. The new operators were fined $500,000 and allowed to operate on a limited basis. Under an agreement, all waste was to be rigorously screened and independently tested.

The company's permit to operate expired in 2018 and they applied for a new one but a Planning Commission Hearing on the full reopening of the site never happened. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has also rejected a modification to allow oilfield waste disposal in an agricultural zone. CFROG rallied residents to come out and speak against that proposal.

The company next ran afoul of the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). In May of 2018, Anterra, operating under the new ownership, was cited by DOGGR for injecting waste materials into the ground in one of their wells at a higher pressure than allowed. 

They were again cited in November for exceeding the allowed pressure in another well during testing.

On December 17, Anterra sent a letter to its customers explaining that even limited operations had ceased at the facility and they were working with DOGGR on “extensive analysis” at the site, with a possible reopening in 2020.

This troubled history underscores the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is not only causing climate change, the processes involved with extracting it are endangering our air, land and water. We do not have to look far to find evidence of it.


Steam-assisted oil recovery: More risky than fracking?

In June of 2011, a sinkhole of super-heated earth opened up and swallowed an oilfield worker in Kern County. That field had been producing heavy oil for decades
utilizing a high-pressure production technique of water heated by natural gas and injected into the earth. 

In May of this year, a leak which grew to 1.34 million gallons of crude oil and produced water was discovered in the Cymric Oil Field in Bakersfield. Chevron was fined more than $2.7 million by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) for this massive leak, one of the largest in state history. High-pressure steam injection was also used in this field.

Although there are various methods of oil recovery utilizing steam, the most scrutiny is being placed on high-pressure injection that fractures the surrounding formation. A moratorium ordered by Gov. Gavin Newson in November focuses entirely on new steam injection projects using that technique.

In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors put a moratorium on all new cyclic steam oil drilling in an area near Oxnard where petroleum-related gases were discovered in the Fox Canyon Aquifer. The operator there was also shut down for multiple permit violations. This aquifer supplies water to more than 700,000 residents. Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) pushed hard for this moratorium.

Scientists working in the Orcutt field near Santa Barbara found evidence of oil-field fluids in water wells near other cyclic steam and acidizing operations, as a result of the new testing required by Senate Bill 4 (2013).

BUT it is important to note, many fields are not affected by our governor's new moratorium because they do not utilize high-pressure steam. In the Oxnard field, steam is injected into the tar sands there, heating the layer until the heavy oil can be extracted. But it is not high pressure.

CALIFORNIA IS GROUND ZERO for steam injection in the United States. It is also used in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada and in a region of Venezuela. Why California? Steam is used to dilute our heavier hydrocarbons so they will flow and, in instances where an oil field is nearly played out, eke the last bit out of the ground. It is often used in shallow formations which tend to be nearer to water sources. The fact is California’s steam-assisted oil industry is extremely energy and water intensive, requiring natural gas to heat water to pull the heavy crude up and even more to turn it into gasoline.

And while hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" gets much of the attention, a permit to frack hasn't been pulled in Ventura County since 2015. This technique utilizes a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals to break the formations apart. 

Steam operations are much more common here.

Anneliese Anderle, a retired petroleum engineer, oversaw well abandonments in Kern County and also worked in the Wilmington Oil Field in Long Beach and Los Angeles, where a massive steam flood in the tar sands there contributed to a decision to shut steam injection down due to "subsidence," or the sinking of the land. She has many concerns.

"The alternating cycles of steam injection, soaking and production put considerable compressive stress on the production casing as it heats, expands and cools," Anderle said. "This also may cause failure to the cement that bonds the exterior casing to the formation. Cement failure can then lead to pathways for the high-pressure steam to migrate to the protected fresh water aquifers and possibly to the surface."

What has California done to protect our land and water in the wake of these serious oilfield issues? Besides the recent narrowly applied moratorium from our governor, we do have new regulations in place which govern underground injections of all types, including steam. DOGGR is now fining oil companies for “surface expressions," the geologic ruptures that caused oil to flow unabated out of the ground in the Cymric Field.

This is not enough.

California has been a leader on climate, yet we have the most carbon-intensive and risky drilling practices in the United States. It is time to phase them out and work toward a fossil-fuel free future.



Controversy at the old Petrochem site continues

A long-standing concern for Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas has been the issue of what to do with land which has been contaminated with the remnants of oil and gas infrastructure. It's a problem we will need to tackle as we transition away from fossil fuels.

The motley history of the now abandoned Petrochem site just north of Ventura has for decades given city and county officials pause when mulling future uses. From its inception in the 1950s as a fertilizer manufacturer, to a later use as a refinery for crude oil which processed 20,000 barrels a day and stored hundreds of thousands more in tanks, the property has been controversial.

An industrial accident at the site in 1978 killed one worker and injured four others. According to a letter written to the Planning Commission in 1983 by a worker, “Spills and mechanical breakdowns were so common that we employees would play games to see who could predict the next one.”

The site was finally shuttered in 1984 after Citizens to Preserve the Ojai stopped plans for an expansion claiming it was an environmental hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered a cleanup which was largely completed in 2014, but questions remain on the thoroughness of the effort. 

CFROG is encouraged when we see projects like Cenergy’s proposal for a solar farm on a former Superfund site near Fillmore. The area was once home to a Texaco refinery. We also applaud a proposal just north of the Petrochem site by the Trust for Public Land for a restoration of native riparian habitat.

But the Montecito owner of this property has proposed housing, which was shot down by the Board of Supervisors in 2018, and now an auto and contractor equipment storage yard.

Activists, including CFROG, packed a small conference room on Oct. 14 to protest the latest proposal during its first hearing. Not only is this a site of questionable environmental safety but it has the compounding problem of its location in a floodplain in the delicate ecosystem of the Ventura River.

Moreover, emissions from the new vehicle trips proposed would lead straight into the sensitive Ojai Valley, which has its own strict rules for pollution sources due to the unique geological vulnerability of the area.

Speakers also noted its location just over a mile away from an area listed by CalEnviro Screen as an Environmental Justice Community, already overburdened by pollution. The largest oil field in the county also surrounds the site.

Another wrinkle appeared at the hearing. Although the new proposal was touted by the owner's land-use consulting firm as the potential site for new cars shipped in from the Port of Hueneme to be stored and prepped, it was apparently just a pipe dream. Officials from the port attended the hearing to also protest the new use and relayed that they had surveyed all their auto customers and not one had expressed interest in storing cars at this remote and controversial site.

The many objections raised made it clear there was not enough information to make any kind of a decision on the proposal. Much more environmental review is needed and questions answered. Ventura County Planning Director Dave Ward took in all the oral and written commentary and promised to respond within 30-40 days.

We believe it is time for the ecologically sensitive area north of Ventura to move from polluting uses of the land to those which contribute to sustainable practices and preservation of this valuable natural area.