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Articles

Drilling opponents consider suing county

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Photo courtesy of Los Padres Forest Watch

Additional drilling will be allowed along the Punchbowl Trail.

Kimberly Rivers, Ojai Valley News correspondent

With a split vote, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors denied the appeal of a project that will put 19 new oil and gas wells along the popular Punchbowl hiking trail in Upper Ojai near Thomas Aquinas College.

After Tuesday’s vote, the appellants indicated a lawsuit against the county may be in the works because they feel the project was approved without proper environmental review.

John Brooks, president of Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG), one of the appellants, said his group would meet soon to discuss possible actions. He said the appeal, and those who support it, are asking that issues including possible harm to endangered species – southern steelhead trout and California Condor – be evaluated to learn whether another drilling location is more suitable.

“It might be just as successful for the oil company to drill from a pad that is not next to the stream where pollutants drain into the fresh water, no one has studied this.” It is CFROG’s position the law requires such study.

CFROG and LPFW filed separate appeals to an application for a minor modification to a Conditional Use Permit (C.U.P) held by California Resources Corporation (CRC). The project, now approved, involves extending the C.U.P for 30 years and adding 19 new wells to existing drill pads.

The appeals sought to require a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) because they said the plan is likely to have impacts that were not assessed during previous EIRs done decades ago. A majority of the County Supervisors disagreed, saying previous EIRs were sufficient to allow this project to proceed.

“We are in consultation with law firms and if economically feasible we will take it to Superior Court in conjunction with our partner organizations,” said Brooks.

“We’re disappointed that a bare majority of the Board approved a major expansion of oil drilling along one of the most popular hiking trails in Ventura County,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director with Los Padres ForestWatch (LPFW). “We remain committed to doing everything we can to protect Santa Paula Canyon and are exploring all of our options – including litigation – to save this special place.”

Kuyper said it was shocking the county approved the drilling “without stabilizing the pipeline with a suspension bridge, without conducting any environmental analysis of impacts to steelhead, and without consulting with fisheries biologists with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife or NOAA Fisheries.” He also pointed to a U.S. Forest Service recommendation of a 200-meter setback as “sufficient distance to avoid all streams and riparian habitats” to protect steelhead from the impacts of oil drilling on national forest land. The U.S. Forest Service based this recommendation on policies of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is the agency responsible for managing oil drilling on federal lands. “The county’s imposition of a 100-foot setback amounts to only 15 percent of this standard requirement,” said Kuyper.

Several of the drill sites for the project are along Santa Paula Creek a documented habitat for the endangered steelhead trout. Government officials have documented sightings of the fish in the creek as recently as this spring.

“The Southern California steelhead trout were listed as a federal endangered species on August 19, 1997,” said Alasdair Coyne, a resident of Upper Ojai and founder of Keep the Sespe Wild. Coyne addressed the Board during the public comment portion of its agenda. “Santa Paula Creek is part of the larger Santa Clara River system, which is designated Core 1 steelhead population in the Southern California steelhead recovery plan. Core 1 populations have the highest priorities for protection and recovery…a full EIR must be prepared in order to establish the proper protections for the Southern Steelhead.”

Those opposed to the appeal said there has been enough environmental review in the past, and this project should be allowed to proceed without further review. And the fact that sightings of condors and steelhead have occurred show they can tolerate the oil activity nearby. In recent days CRC, volunteered to install automatic shut off valves on their pipelines involved with the project. These types of valves, when they work correctly, will limit the amount of oil spilled in the event of a pipeline failure.

Supervisor Peter Foy (Dist. 4) made the motion to deny the appeal, Supervisor Kathy Long (Dist. 3) seconded the motion and Supervisor John Zaragoza (Dist. 5) joined them in the majority vote. Supervisors Steve Bennett (Dist. 1) and Linda Parks (Dist. 2) opposed the motion, and indicated they were in support of approving the appeal. The approved motion added conditions to the permit including making the automatic shut of valves mandatory and requiring landscape screening replace green fabric screening, which currently creates an attractive canvas for graffiti.

“The staff report asserts no new environmental impacts were identified. But no attempt was made to identify potential impacts,” said Dawn Theiding, a cultural resource specialist and resident of Ojai. “It wholly fails to identify buried resources in the project area.” She also pointed out the previous EIRs, performed decades ago, were not aimed at assessing impacts on cultural or archeological resources and “there is no evidence that local tribal leaders have been consulted,” as required by state law.

“There is no impact until it happens,” said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, tribal leader of Barbareno-Ventureno band of Chumash. She described the destructive effects of the Refugio spill north of Santa Barbara earlier this year and how Ventura County has not had such an event. “We are lucky for that. We are not being careful about doing the testing, doing the studies. I think you’ve been given enough evidence to do a new EIR,” she told the Supervisors.

Not all speakers were in favor of the appeal; some support the staff recommendation to deny it.

“There are approximately 600,000 private citizens who own mineral rights in the state,” said Ed Hazard, a resident of Paso Robles. He heads up the California Chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners. “The majority are female, over 60 and I am told a number of them are involved in this project. Without oil produced, these citizens would not be able to have these minerals produced. You are lucky to have a company of this caliber. This is what California needs, to produce, refine and use locally. It is the most environmental way.”

“There are a lot of passionate feelings on both sides when you say the word oil.

But I think this proposal before us has been thoroughly vetted, researched by staff,” said Long. She mentioned mitigation measures put forward by the California Fish and Wildlife Department to reduce impacts on the California condor habitat. “I think [staff] certainly know that this Board is very concerned about decision making when it comes to the oil and gas industry in this county. And there is less and less of it (oil production) in this county, for a variety of reasons — the market, rules and regulations.” She said a new EIR would not impact where the current drilling pads are, “So I’m not sure how much would be gained by doing it.”

“We look forward to implementing the conservation measures identified by the county as we continue to develop affordable, reliable energy in a safe and responsible manner,” said Amy Fonzo, manager of external affairs for CRC. “CRC appreciates the approval by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors of the modification to our longstanding Ferndale land use permit. As the third-largest taxpayer in Ventura County, CRC and our workforce are proud of our commitment to safety and environmental protection as we invest throughout the county.”

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Ojai Valley News photo by Kimberly Rivers

Alasdair Coyne speaks to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

© Ojai Valley News, 2015

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