Thursday, August 25, 2005
Last July, the US Forest Service approved a plan that will allow oil drilling to expand across three areas of the Los Padres National Forest. Areas to be leased are located near existing Santa Barbara and Ventura county oil operations in the Cuyama Valley and along the southern boundary of the national forest primarily near the Sespe Oil Fields.
Opponents say the decision—nearly a decade in the making—has the potential to cause widespread harm to the forest’s clean water, recreation, wilderness and wildlife.
Los Padres Forest officials counter that all of the potential surface disturbance will occur outside of pristine, roadless areas, and that any leases issued would include stringent requirements to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat, scenery, recreation, and air and water quality.
Shortly after the plan’s announcement, US Rep. Lois Capps, whose district includes Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said: “Make no mistake, new drilling in the Los Padres National Forest will devastate our beautiful landscape and our economic vitality. Just because drilling is already occurring in an area does not mean we should add to the damage. More development might be out of sight, but not out of mind.”
Capps recently reintroduced the Los Padres Conservation Act (HR 3149), which would ban additional drilling in the forest.
Although the decision opens 52,075 acres to potential leasing, Los Padres Forest Supervisor Gloria Brown says that the effects will be minimal. Brown says surface occupancy will only be allowed on 4,277 acres. The other 47,798 acres will be restricted to directional or slant drilling from national forest lands where development is allowed, or from nearby private lands. Directional or slant drilling is drilling at an angle to access subsurface oil and gas deposits which are not directly beneath the well site.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, oppose any additional drilling.
Jeff Kuyper, a member of the environmental watchdog group Los Padres ForestWatch, says his organization is concerned that expanded oil drilling in the forest will impact recreational opportunities like hiking, biking, fishing and the general enjoyment of public lands.
“We’re also concerned about the impacts of oil drilling on sensitive species—particularly the California condor,” Kuyper says, adding that only 56 condors live in Los Padres. “The Forest Service is allowing surface drilling right up to the boundary of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Drilling has already had an untold impact on the condors. We think the NFS [(National Forest Service)] should be looking at this impact instead of opening more drilling.”
Brown argues that her decision protects the California condor by not leasing critical habitat areas. In addition, she points out that the forest service has consulted with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to devise strict measures to further protect the condor, including placing powerlines underground, keeping well sites free of trash, keeping liquid containers covered at all times, and other restrictions as needed on a site-specific basis.
Altogether, the forest service’s decision will potentially allow oil and gas drilling within close proximity of three federally designated wilderness areas: the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sespe River. More than 1.5 million people annually visit these areas to the north and east of Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Still, Brown downplays the significance of the plan.
“To think that there are going to be oil wells anytime, anywhere is unrealistic,” she says. “Even if all leases were granted, you’re looking at less than 21 acres of surface disturbance. Five well pads, a mile of road, two miles of pipeline. This is the maximum development scenario.”
And if they found nothing, Brown says, those acres would be totally undeveloped.
According Al Hess, an oil and gas research specialist for the national forest, there’s already a precedent for drilling.
“In the early 1980s, the forest service analyzed over 300 existing lease applications,” Hess says. “About a dozen leases were actually leased by BLM. Only two wells were actually drilled. Both were dry, the land was abandoned and returned to original condition. I’m not saying that things are going to be different. But this is what could happen.”
Additionally, Hess says oil companies are “hardly hammering at the doors” because there are many other cheaper oil-rich places to drill in the West such Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
Brown says, as supervisor of Los Padres, she has no choice but to conduct the study and lease the lands due to a legal mandate by Congress to manage the forest for multiple uses such as grazing, communication and energy resources in addition to recreation.
“Through a congressional act I am obligated to analyze it and come to some kind of a conclusion,” she says. “If I did not do this I would not be carrying out this mandate. Although many of us would rather not see that, I have to do this. You don’t have these lands closed to this kind of industry.”
Kuyper says Los Padres is already contributing its fair share to our nation’s oil demands.
“To say that they need to add to that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’re already meeting the needs required by Congress,” he says. “Congress only required NFS to evaluate the forest for oil drilling. It could have been perfectly legal for the NFS to evaluate and say they don’t need any more and won’t allow any more.”
Los Padres ForestWatch is currently preparing an appeal to the decision based on scientific data and legal arguments. If the appeal is not successful, Kuyper says his group will pursue other legal options, and may take the forest service to court.
According to Kuyper, the forest service received nearly 8,000 comment letters on the 2002 draft Environmental Impact Statement to expand oil and gas development on the Los Padres. Of these comments, he says, an overwhelming majority expressed strong opposition to the proposal.