Thursday, October 21, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 34

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 11th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 2

CalGEM public hearing held in Santa Maria allows locals to opine on proposed expansion of Cat Canyon oil production

By Malea Martin

People flanked by handmade signs spill out of a charter bus that just arrived from UC Santa Barbara. They join a growing rally outside the Veterans Memorial Center in Santa Maria, chanting, “Health, not oil,” and, “No new oil, keep it in the soil!” A microphone passed around gave different folks and organizations a chance to lead the rally cries.

A recent state hearing in Santa Maria drew crowds of protesters, who brought signs of all shapes and sizes expressing views against the proposed oil drilling expansion in Cat Canyon.

“We deserve health,” declares a 6-foot-wide sign with an artistic depiction of megaphone-clenching activists.  

“Merecemos salud,” it also says in Spanish, alongside bold red lettering that reads “NO CAT CANYON” and “NO MORE DRILLING.”

The March 4 rally took place before a public health community meeting, a hearing held by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the state’s new version of the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. The Santa Maria meeting was one in a series being held by CalGEM throughout the state in an effort to gauge local opinions and perspectives on oil drilling. Organized by climate-concerned groups, the pre-hearing rally included students, activists, and community leaders. 

Leaders from Los Padres ForestWatch, a Central Coast-based wilderness advocacy organization, spoke about the impetus behind the rally in a phone call with the Sun as they drove up from Santa Barbara.

“The rally is really a way for the community to come together to advocate and send a strong message to the governor that we want our communities protected,” said Graciela Cabello, director of youth and community engagement for the organization. “It’s about creating an awareness around the injustices that currently exist for communities that have oil in them.”

Stay informed
To fulfill its recently revamped mission to protect public health, safety, and the environment, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) is updating public health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas production operations. Part of that undertaking involves holding public hearings across the state. CalGEM’s next local Public Health Community Meeting will be in Oxnard on March 18 at the Pacifica High School cafeteria. The state plans to continue the hearings until April 10, according to the California Department of Conservation Public Health rulemaking webpage,

Aera Energy’s oil development project in East Cat Canyon—which proposes re-establishing oil production in an existing oil field, including construction and restoration of approximately 72 well pads and drilling of up to 296 wells—is a main issue of contention for groups like ForestWatch. 

While the rally called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to halt this project, the public hearing itself drew an equally strong contingent of voices in support of local oil production. 

Chad Walker, environmental manager at Vaquero Energy, was among the first to speak at the hearing, which garnered an audience that outnumbered the 100 or so chairs set up for the event. He pointed to the impact that halting oil production would have on the local economy as well as the potential for dependence on foreign oil as reasons to move forward with the project.

“Due to the pressures and burdens of overregulation, Vaquero Energy, a fourth-generation, family-owned operation, is slowly transitioning out of California,” Walker told CalGEM representatives moderating the meeting. “We’ve now further increased California’s reliance on foreign oil, lost valuable tax revenues for this community, increased global greenhouse gas emissions, and contributed to lost jobs and the increased potential for homelessness.”

Enthusiastic applause followed Walker’s statement. 

But applause from oil opponents supported statements made by community members who spoke against proposed oil drilling. Carmen Boquin, an activist who had earlier led rally chants, used her two-minute speaking allowance to relay a message from her mother, a physician at Community Health Centers Central Coast.

“My mom wasn’t able to come here today, but she asked me to read something,” Boquin said. “She says, ‘I can tell you without a doubt that for people living and working near and in proximity to oil drilling, it can cause respiratory illness, nausea, nose bleeds, and possible risk of cancer. I see it every day in my patients.’”

Other than the immediate health concerns for communities living near oil drills, public comment at the meeting also touched on the future impact of oil drilling near aquifers. An aquifer exemption proposed in 2019 would expand the area in Cat Canyon where oil companies can operate injection wells.

“We request aquifers not to be exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, because California needs its future water sources,” ForestWatch’s Cabello said at the hearing.

With the next local public hearing scheduled for March 18 in Oxnard, the state plans to continue the hearings until April 10, according to the California Department of Conservation Public Health rulemaking webpage. 

Regarding updates on the proposed Cat Canyon aquifer exemption, CalGEM Public Information Officer Don Drysdale wrote in an email to the Sun that “CalGEM and the state Water Board are finalizing answers to public comments for the proposed aquifer exemption.”

Once the public health hearings conclude, Drysdale said that comments will be “organized by issue and presented to a team of CalGEM subject matter experts.” 

According to Drysdale, each issue will be considered by the team to determine whether solutions are available and to evaluate the feasibility and cost of those solutions. The team will then make recommendations about what should be included in the draft regulations based on their analysis, Drysdale said.

Integrating public comment into CalGEM’s regulation and rulemaking process is just one piece of a larger shift within the agency, including a name change that became effective at the beginning of 2020 as well as an updated mission statement. Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), who authored the bill that called for these changes, told the Sun that increased civic involvement in the rulemaking process is all part of the agency’s new look and feel. 

“We renamed the department, but we also changed the mission statement to include consideration for health and environmental impact,” Limón said. “There has been a long history of the [Department of Conservation’s] division of oil and gas and their role. At times they weren’t as involved with the public.”

But after witnessing the “very public reactions” of people affected by the May 2019 Kern County oil spill, Limón saw an opportunity for the agency to not just listen to the public, but to potentially codify their perspectives. 

“When I authored this bill … it was done from a place of wanting to make sure that those diverse perspectives were formally included in the thinking of the leaders of the department,” Limón said. “It is my hope that all of the feedback will be considered.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at

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