Update: Santa Paula Canyon Drilling Lawsuit

Last Fall, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve an oil company’s plan to drill 19 new wells along one of the most popular hiking trails leading into the Los Padres National Forest.

The trail – located in Santa Paula Canyon halfway between Ojai and Santa Paula – takes visitors into some of the most wild and rugged terrain in the forest, with stunning canyon walls and some of the best swimming holes and waterfalls around, including the famed Punch Bowl.

One of many swimming holes in Santa Paula Canyon. Image courtesy Tim Hauf.

The proposed wells would compound the challenges of misuse and neglect that the canyon currently faces. ForestWatch – along with our conservation partners the Center for Biological Diversity and Citizens for Responsible Oil & Gas, and with the support of our members – filed a lawsuit in state court in October, and launched a program to focus renewed attention on the fate of this beautiful canyon.

The Lawsuit

Our lawsuit, titled Los Padres ForestWatch et al. v. County of Ventura, challenges the Board’s reliance on a 37-year-old Environmental Impact Report. This report is woefully outdated, and the oil company has failed to implement many of its basic recommendations, such as protecting Santa Paula Creek from the risks posed by oil spills and planting trees to hide the oil wells from public view. The lawsuit alleges violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The lawsuit seeks to stop the drilling of any new wells until a current and complete Environmental Impact Report is prepared. In addition to the County, the lawsuit also names two oil companies, California Resources Corporation (the state’s largest oil and gas producer) and Seneca Resources Corporation, which owns the land and also operates the nearby Sespe Oil Field.

The first wells hikers encounter on their way into the canyon.

Judge Shopping

The case was initially assigned to Judge Reiser, the only judge in Ventura County who is certified to consider CEQA cases. Given Judge Reiser’s expertise in this highly technical field, we looked forward to presenting our arguments in his courtroom, but the County’s attorneys did not. This is presumably because Judge Reiser has ruled against Ventura County in several prior CEQA cases where the County failed to comply with the law. The County sought to disqualify Judge Reiser from hearing the case, claiming that he would not be “fair and impartial” but the County’s objection was denied on a technicality.

Then the oil companies followed suit, seeking to disqualify Judge Reiser on the same basis. Under the court’s rules, upon receiving a properly-filed motion to disqualify a judge, the case is automatically reassigned. We now look forward to arguing the case before Judge DeNoce – another highly-qualified jurist – later this summer.

Strengthening Our Case

Since filing suit, ForestWatch has been busy sifting through thousands of pages of records, scanning each page and compiling evidence to build an even stronger case. Our attorneys are in the midst of preparing legal arguments to submit to the judge, and are confident that we will prevail. We are being represented in this case by Chatten-Brown & Carstens, one of the preeminent environmental law firms in California.

Growing Our Legal Fund

We’re pleased to report that our initial fundraising effort raised more than $40,000 from nearly 200 donors! Our friends at Patagonia continued their longstanding support of our work when employees from several departments selected ForestWatch as the recipient of year-end “Miracle Grants” that put us over the top of our goal. Thanks to the generosity of all of our supporters, we are poised to mount an effective litigation strategy to protect Santa Paula Canyon.

Click here to learn more about our efforts to solve drilling, trash, and graffiti problems in Santa Paula Canyon and learn how you can help!

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