Santa Paula, Calif. – A company is seeking permission to nearly double the size of its oil drilling operation along the boundary of the Los Padres National Forest between Ojai and Santa Paula in Ventura County. The drilling site is located along Santa Paula Creek and is bisected by one of the most popular recreational trails in the forest.
The County’s Planning Division conducted a public hearing on the matter last week, after announcing the hearing on December 24. ForestWatch attended the hearing, provided testimony, and submitted a detailed 14-page letter outlining our concerns with expanded oil drilling in this area, after reviewing thousands of pages of County records regarding the drilling operation.
The oil wells would be located on the historic Ferndale Ranch adjacent to Thomas Aquinas College, a quaint campus in a picturesque, remote canyon that serves as a major gateway into the Los Padres National Forest. The area currently contains 17 oil wells, along with a network of pipelines, storage tanks, and other infrastructure. The first well here was drilled in 1971, and over time, several wells were approved, often with minimal or no environmental studies.
At one point, a trail – the East Fork Santa Paula Creek Trail – was rerouted to make way for one of the drill pads. It is one of the most popular trails in the Ojai Ranger District, leading through a pristine canyon to a series of swimming holes and waterfalls and eventually taking outdoor enthusiasts to several backcountry camps in the Sespe Wilderness.
After reviewing the company’s proposal, County planning staff concluded that no additional environmental impact report is necessary. Instead, they merely prepared a 9-page addendum to a 30-year-old EIR. That 1985 EIR only addresses truck access to and from the drilling sites, and doesn’t address a series of new information and changed circumstances that have occurred at the site over the last three decades.
Santa Paula Canyon is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in Ventura County, providing habitat for several rare and imperiled wildlife including southern steelhead and California condors. The area also serves as one of the most popular gateways to trails, backcountry camps, swimming holes, and waterfalls in the Los Padres National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that as many as 100,000 people use this trail every year, many venturing to a series of swimming holes and waterfalls called The Punchbowl.
The site is also part of the original Chumash village of Sisa, the largest of the inland village sites and considered by archaeologists to be of the “highest significance” in understanding the entire Chumash economic sphere and social network. The surrounding land uses – including an avocado ranch, national forest land, and a quaint college campus – are incompatible with intensive oil development. The operation has a long history of significant permit violations, which have placed this area at great risk.
The company – California Resources Corporation – is a subsidiary of global oil giant Occidental Petroleum. Before recently changing names, the company was known as Vintage Production California LLC, a company with a dismal track record of oil spills throughout Ventura County.
The Planning Director will issue her decision sometime in February. If no EIR is prepared, ForestWatch will immediately appeal the decision to the County Planning Commission, where the matter would be scheduled for a new round of public hearings later this year. ForestWatch will continue to track this project to ensure that the trails and wildlife in Santa Paula Canyon are protected from the expansion of industrial oil development.