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CEC is committed to creating a more resilient and just region in the face of climate change. Through our work with the Central Coast Climate Justice Network and elsewhere, our vision includes an end to racial injustices and their resulting environmental inequities.


I bet you didn’t know you’re standing on the front lines of the climate battle. I certainly didn’t.

Even after I trained with Al Gore as part of his Climate Reality Project last year and started giving local presentations, I still thought of climate change as a global problem with local impacts. I didn’t understand the degree to which our local decisions about energy in Santa Barbara County are central to the question. It was only recently, when preparing for a presentation in Lompoc near some active drilling sites, that it occurred to me to research California oil reserves.

That’s when I learned that north Santa Barbara County is home to a portion of the Monterey Shale formation. Covering much of central California, it is by far the largest shale oil reserve in the country, with an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of oil. The Monterey formation is more than twice as big as the country’s second- and third-largest formations combined – the Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas.

15.4 billion barrels of oil is an enormous number; it’s equivalent to what would flow through the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline over the next 40 years, and it’s just as dirty. This is “tight” oil that can only be extracted through energy-intensive, high emissions processes like fracking, steam injection or pumping wells with hydrofluoric acid.

When NASA climate scientist James Hanson warns that extracting dirty, non-conventional fossil fuels means “game over for the climate,” he’s referring to reserves like this. The math is simple. We can emit no more than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide globally if we want to stay below 2°C of warming – and trust me, we do. The fossil fuel industry currently has resources with the equivalent of 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in reserves that it currently plans to extract and burn. Unlocking unconventional plays like shale oil adds to this number and will increase emissions even more.

In other words, an oil boom in California would be a major step down the road toward a catastrophic future for life on earth.

This poses immediate local risks as well. Among Santa Barbara’s greatest assets are its natural beauty and environment, which drive economic growth and jobs in the tech industry, tourism, agriculture and real estate. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California produces nearly 50% of fruits, vegetables and nuts in the in the country. Monterey Shale stretches across prime agricultural land.

In North Dakota where a shale oil boom is in full swing, wells dominate the landscape, and there have been thousands of reported leaks of fracking fluid and oil. Fracking involves injecting vast quantities of water and toxic chemicals underground and has been linked to air pollution, water contamination, health problems and livestock deaths.

The other risk in California is earthquakes. The waste water from these wells is injected deep underground and can trigger earthquakes. One USGS study found 20 times the occurrences of magnitude 3 or larger earthquakes in areas of New Mexico and Colorado after increases in wastewater injection. This is a crazy risk to take in California where the San Andreas Fault runs right through the Monterey Shale formation.

Yet, here in California the oil companies are quietly preparing for an oil boom just like North Dakota’s. They are buying up mineral rights, drilling test wells, lobbying politicians and engaging in a PR campaign touting the benefits of oil tax revenue and jobs.

Luckily, we have a choice. Santa Barbara is also rich in renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. Investing in renewable energy creates more jobs than fossil fuel per dollar invested. Instead of doubling down on dirty fossil fuels, we can make a choice to embrace renewable energy and transportation instead.

Fighting off the oil companies won’t be easy.  They are betting they can ramp up production before we know what hit us. Accelerating local renewable energy production with the goal of creating a fossil-free Santa Barbara will be work. But if we make the right choice here, it will send a powerful message to the rest of the nation and world.

Whichever path California chooses, others will follow. At stake is, quite possibly, the future livability of the planet.


Katie Davis is a member of CEC’s Partnership Council, and has been through training with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project.


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