Water’s a hot commodity in the Cuyama Valley. So when someone says the word “drill,” people’s ears perk up. 

This time around, it’s not water they’re looking to store in “frost ponds” on Harvard University’s North Fork Vineyard property in Cuyama. They’re looking for oil. West Bay Exploration Co. wants to drill a probing solitary “test” well on the property: 11,000 feet deep.

But that well still needs water to be drilled. And drilling for oil also produces some not so drinking-water-friendly substances—which West Bay plans to truck away along Highway 166, the safest highway in California … not. As one concerned area resident asked the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission on Jan. 31: What if the groundwater supply gets contaminated? 

Never fear! Tim Baker, the Hidden Canyon Test Well project manager, said they’re going to test water quality. That way, they’ll be able to tell you if the water gets contaminated, you know?

The same resident—Roberta Jaffe—also said she was worried about the project’s potential to become something big. 

“The only way to truly answer the question as to whether it’s productive or not is to drill a well and analyze the information gleaned from the well,” Baker said. 

So, West Bay is admitting that a future project could come if this little test well produces oil that’s worth a damn. While residents asked commissioners to take that into consideration when voting on the project, that wasn’t their task. The rules say to vote on each project individually. 

“No oil and gas production is proposed as part of this project and no permanent facilities are proposed besides the single wellhead,” county Energy, Minerals, and Compliance Division Planner Katie Nall said, adding that West Bay will return to the commission with a more detailed production plan if production is feasible.

Speculating on the potential for future projects isn’t part of the equation, county staff told commissioners. It’s a “hard stop” at the well testing project. 

“I think we’re missing the boat here,” said 1st District Planning Commisioner C. Michael Cooney, who represents Cuyama. 

“Everyone in this room knows that no one is proposing test drilling simply for the sake of doing test drilling,” Benjamin Pitterle from Los Padres ForestWatch said at the meeting. “It’s not a discrete project.” 

He’s right. It’s not. But a test well is a test well and an oil production project is something else entirely—something that would need to be thoroughly vetted by all the appropriate agencies before moving forward, including by Santa Barbara County. And speculation on the future may possibly have already gotten the county in trouble when it comes to oil: Remember  the pipeline issues from last year and ExxonMobil’s letter saying that it was just going to go around the county since going through it was so hard?

I get it; it sucks. But just like you can’t convict someone of a crime before they’ve committed it, you can’t convict a company of a project it hasn’t even proposed yet. 

“It really goes against my grain,” Cooney added before voting to approve the project. “Like several of my fellow commissioners, I feel bound by the rules we are assigned … so this will be a rare vote for me in approving staff’s recommendation.”

The canary’s a rare bird. Send seed to [email protected].

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