Today, Los Padres ForestWatch and our conservation partners submitted opening arguments in our lawsuit challenging the expansion of oil drilling in Santa Paula Canyon, adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.
The project – approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in late 2015 – would allow an oil company to drill 19 new wells along a popular hiking trail that serves as the gateway to the national forest. At the same time, the County also extended the life of 17 existing wells in the area for another three decades.
More than one thousand concerned residents and experts wrote letters opposing the project. When County Planning staff approved the project with few changes, the groups filed an appeal to the County Planning Commission. Then the Commission approved the project and the groups appealed to the County Board of Supervisors. In October 2015, the Supervisors – in a split 3-2 vote – allowed the drilling project to move forward.
The following month, ForestWatch, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Citizens for Responsible Oil & Gas filed a lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court, alleging that the County’s approval violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The groups are represented by Chatten-Brown & Carstens, one of the state’s leading environmental law firms, who agreed to take the case at a discounted rate. The lawsuit names the County of Ventura and two oil companies involved in the project – California Resources Corporation located in Bakersfield, and Texas-based Seneca Resources Corporation.
In our opening brief filed today, we argue that the County of Ventura violated CEQA by failing to ensure that the new and existing wells would minimize their impact on the sensitive canyon environment. Specifically, our groups argue that the drilling must be put on hold until the County prepares a new Environmental Impact Report that incorporates the following issues of concern:
Drilling and operating 19 additional wells along the popular hiking trail will cause additional noise, aesthetic impacts, and petroleum odors. The oil company has failed to install landscaping to screen the oil facilities from public view, and has failed to reroute the trail away from the oil pads – both required by the 1978 EIR.
Heavy truck traffic will occur during the drilling of the wells, which creates a public safety risk to hikers walking on the road where it overlaps with the hiking trail.
One of the proposed drilling sites is located too close to Santa Paula Creek, and is within a 300-foot buffer that is typically imposed on other development projects to protect sensitive creeks from sedimentation and pollution.
Crude oil produced from the new wells would be transported across Santa Paula Creek via an old pipeline that lacks support structures. The 1978 EIR for the project required the pipeline to be reinforced with a suspension bridge, but it was never built to those specifications, placing Santa Paula Creek at grave risk for an oil spill. Other pipelines on the site also pose a risk of oil spills into the creek.
Endangered wildlife like California condors and southern steelhead are placed at risk from oil drilling. Impacts to these species were not adequately evaluated.
Most of the existing wells at this site have been fracked with hazardous chemicals, some on multiple occasions. The County failed to evaluate the likelihood that the new 19 wells would be fracked as well, and failed to impose measures to avoid those impacts.
In addition, our brief argues that the County should have rejected the oil company’s application at the very beginning. This is because the County’s own Zoning Ordinance clearly states that a permit application cannot be acted upon if the facility is in violation of its own permit. ForestWatch had previously notified the County about numerous permit violations on the site, but County planners refused to conduct an investigation or hold the oil companies accountable.
The County and the oil companies will now have an opportunity to respond to our arguments in writing. Then we will have an opportunity to reply before the judge issues a ruling on the case. The judge’s decision could come as early as this summer.
In the meantime, ForestWatch continues to monitor the oil company’s compliance with the current permit. In October 2016 – one year after approving the new drilling – the County issued a Zoning Clearance giving the oil company authority to move forward with the drilling. ForestWatch appealed the Zoning Clearance to the Planning Commission, placing the drilling on hold. A Planning Commission hearing has not yet been scheduled.
As our lawsuit continues to progress through the court system, we are committed to ensuring that existing oil operations are fully compliant with current permits and environmental requirements. Santa Paula Canyon has been neglected for far too long, and this is our first step in ensuring that this treasured landscape can be restored to its former glory. We appreciate the tremendous outpouring of support for our lawsuit, and we are confident that we will achieve a successful outcome for the future of Santa Paula Canyon.
Click here to learn more about what we’re doing to address drilling, trash, and graffiti in Santa Paula Canyon and how you can help.