Thursday, October 28, 2010
Highway 101 south of Salinas passes through fields of crops, grazing cattle and wineries – calendar-caliber California ag land. But almost 20 miles past King City, the San Ardo Oil Fields reveal other riches sequestered in rock beneath the fertile soil.
Now, a Carpinteria-based oil company is eyeing potential oil deposits a little farther down the 101, in the Hames Valley and Bradley.
The county has approved a permit for Venoco Inc. to drill nine new test wells on three private properties. But a coalition of citizen groups is appealing, saying a full environmental impact report (EIR) should be required.
“They can’t keep approving these things without an environmental analysis,” says Steve Craig, director of Lockwood-based Ventana Conservation and Land Trust. “An EIR would open a lot of this up to the public.”
But Taven Kinison Brown, a county planning services manager, says the test well drilling is consistent with the county’s zoning code and is akin to other kinds of mineral prospecting.
“If you were hunting for gold, you wouldn’t just come in with a whole operation. You’d want to find out if the resource is there,” he says. “The review that’s on the table right now is for exploration. Should they decide later that they want to take this to the next level and talk about commercial production, there would be a brand new proposal and a brand new [public and environmental] review.”
Venoco has already established at least two test wells in the county.
“They’re not economic, but they’re the science that helps the geologists,” says Mike Edwards, Venoco’s vice president of corporate and investor relations. “If we have evaluation wells that tell us there are commercial quantities of oil, then we can understand the scope of an EIR. At this point we’re in the data-gathering process.”
Commercial drilling is well established in the area: San Ardo Oil Field is estimated to contain more than a half-billion barrels. But Craig says newer extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, large-volume water injections and horizontal drilling merit deeper analysis, even for exploratory operations.
Venoco will likely spend up to $3 million per test well, according to Edwards. Craig worries that kind of investment could make it hard for regulators to deny future drilling applications: “You’ve put in enough money that you can’t be stopped.”
But Edwards says it depends: If the test wells don’t pan out, Venoco will remove its equipment and restore the land. If they do, the company will seek a conditional use permit for a larger operation. “It’s something we’d pursue if we find those results and go through the full EIR,” he says.
As part of the appeal, the VCLT and its allies – Los Padres ForestWatch, Halt Oil Lease Drilling and Center for Biological Diversity – want equal rights for South County residents. Under county rules, coastal-area drilling is subject to a vote of the people, but the same doesn’t apply inland.
“The county hasn’t even asked the question of whether people want a new oil field in this area,” Craig says. “I think the answer is no.”
The appeal also asks the county to levy a test well drilling fee to fund environmental mitigation, set aside some jobs for locals and waive the roughly $5,000 fee for appeals of drilling permits on inland oil fields.
“To charge a little nonprofit that much looks like it’s intended to suppress participation,” Craig says.
Venoco’s test well drilling permit is suspended pending the appeal. The county Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the issue Dec. 8.