Vandenberg Air Force Base officials surprised nearly everyone last week by announcing a willingness to relook at the possibility of allowing slant drilling to take place along its southern coast and dip into — and under — state waters extending three miles off the coast. Even Robert Nunn, principal of Sunset Exploration, who has spent much of the past 10 years lobbying to make this happen, said he was caught “flat-footed,” though happily so. Also caught off guard were area environmentalists, county oil regulators, and even Congressmember Lois Capps, who has long taken a dim view of new oil development off the coast.
As recently as 2008, it appeared base commanders had killed Sunset’s slant-drilling proposal for good, steadfastly refusing to provide so much as their institutional John Hancock on a permit application then submitted by Nunn, in partnership with ExxonMobil, that would have allowed full environmental review to proceed. Without that signature, county energy planners refused to process the application, and the project went nowhere. At the time, Vandenberg commanders and top Air Force brass concluded that the slant-drilling operations Nunn proposed — located between two missile launch bases — could compromise Vandenberg’s core military mission. Not entirely clear is what changed Vandenberg’s mind. Master Sergeant Kevin Williams suggested the technology may have evolved or that a new — and less objectionable — location might be in the offing.
Since 2008, Nunn has marshaled impressive political support from California Congressmember John Garamendi (formerly on California’s State Lands Commission) and Colorado Representative Doug Lamborn (chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources), who have written letters to the Air Force arguing Vandenberg should be studied to determine whether suitable drilling sites exist. Nor has it hurt Nunn’s case that the federal budget process has fallen into political paralysis and that the Air Force — like all branches of the federal government — has been hit by major funding cuts. In that context, the royalties that could be generated by the Sunset proposal have to enjoy a new luster. There’s no guarantee the new study will determine there’s a viable spot for slant drilling, and if it does, the Air Force has made it clear there will be a competitive bidding process. Still, Nunn and Sunset — which submitted a complete application nearly 10 years ago — clearly have a major head start.
Nunn is hoping to dip his corporate straw below offshore water roiled violently by the last effort — by oil company PXP — to tap into reserves located in what’s known as the Tranquillon Ridge. PXP had hoped to exploit the same reserves from its offshore platforms located in federal waters and, amazingly, won over almost all of Santa Barbara’s major environmentalists — not to mention the County Board of Supervisors — by pledging a firm drop-dead date by which drilling would cease and oil platforms be abandoned. The California State Lands Commission, however, would ultimately vote against the deal, arguing it was too good to be true and not legally enforceable. Nunn and his political consultant Jared Ficker worked behind the scenes to rally environmentalists statewide — as the first offshore oil lease approved by State Lands since 1968, enviros argued, the PXP deal would set a dangerous precedent for the industrialization of the coast. Only time will tell to what degree this poisoned the waters with the region’s enviros. But with this history, Nunn will have to work even harder than he already is.
Nunn aims to make the case that what he’s proposing does not constitute offshore oil development with all its attendant high-profile risks of blowouts and wholesale marine contamination. Nunn prefers the term “land-based” oil development instead, noting that even “offshore” sounds too much like “onshore,” and could engender opposition before the actual facts can be presented. The undersea oil reserves by Tranquillon Ridge are located 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, he pointed out. That’s 700 feet below the bottom of the sea floor, he added, making the extended-reach drilling arms that he hopes one day will burrow far beneath the ocean bottom virtually identical to any of the 3,000 land-based drilling permits he says are issued every year in the State of California.
As a sixth-generation Californian, Nunn says he understands the public concern over offshore oil development. “But we’re onshore,” he said. “None of our infrastructure would be in the marine environment. If we can do this the California way, we can extract the resource without risk of a spill.” In reflexively oil-phobic Santa Barbara, that will be a hard sell. Even with the State Lands Commission — more apt to be impressed by the considerable revenues a venture like this could generate — it’s an uphill climb. As a letter written on behalf of the State Lands Commission last summer to Vandenberg’s commander noted, no new offshore leases have been granted by the State Lands Commission since 1968, a full year before Santa Barbara’s iconic oil spill of 1969 gave the industry such a black eye in California. Since 2001, the commission has passed 11 resolutions opposing the resumption of oil leasing in federal waters of California’s coast.
Regardless of how terrestrially based Nunn’s operations may, in fact, be, he can’t drill a drop without first securing an offshore lease from the State Lands Commission. But if Vandenberg gives Nunn a green light to proceed at least with environmental review, he’s hoping the project’s costs and benefits can be detailed with some precision. Nunn takes exception to the previous environmental impact report, which concluded Sunset’s proposal was no better or worse environmentally than PXP’s rejected plan. “I’d like to think this isn’t going to be a big fight,” he said, “as much as it’s going to be a big debate with all the facts in place.” The Air Force has estimated it will take up to three months to complete its assessment to determine whether a site exists on Vandenberg where slant drilling can take place without compromising the base’s core mission.