On a sandy stretch of coastline in Goleta, just off the fairways of Sandpiper Golf Course and a 10-minute walk from the Haskell’s Beach parking lot, there’s an oil spill waiting to happen.
Two old, rusty piers house the remnants of a drill rig, injection well, and seaside processing facility, where some believe pressure has been building since 1994, when pipes broke, spilled oil on Sandpiper, and forced then-owner Mobil Oil to shut it down. After two more spills came from aging pipes and presumably building pressure in 2000 and 2001, Venoco Inc. — the Carpinteria-based oil company that purchased the facility and mineral rights from Mobil in 1998 — made emergency repairs. A couple of years later, it proposed to restart oil and gas production there, arguing that drilling would relieve such dangerous pressure that could cause other historic coastal wells — which were improperly capped decades ago with antiquated technology — to blow.
But maybe there’s no real danger at all. No one knows for sure whether this feared repressurization is still happening or, if it is, at a rate that will ever be perilous. And according to the California State Lands Commission (CSLC) — which has jurisdiction over the site and has been processing Venoco’s request for more than six years now — the only way to tell is to approve the project and let Venoco drill.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about whether or not it’s happening,” said Cy Oggins, environmental chief for State Lands. “What we do know is that when they produced this well in the 1990s, the oil came out really, really fast, and it gave our engineers some feeling that there is potential repressurization.” The environmental report will “hypothesize” on the pressure risks, but it cannot confirm them, said Oggins, explaining, “The only way to determine is for the well to be drilled.”
And that’s just one of the complicated considerations for Venoco’s proposal, which isn’t yet triggering the typical “just say no” response from the oil-weary environmental community, although any potential eco-benefit seems to have an associated eco-risk.
For instance, if approved as proposed, the project would move oil processing off the piers and into the nearby, Venoco-owned Ellwood Onshore Facility (EOF), mean the immediate removal of the westernmost pier (since it would no longer be needed), and eventually lead to the complete removal and 21st-century cleanup of the entire area once the well was exhausted. But those benefits could also increase the life of the EOF (which a decade-old amortization study suggested could be shutdown by 2016), and it remains unclear how long the well would produce; Venoco has predicted 12 years, but the state’s report says, “historic data suggest that production could continue beyond that time.”
Add to that the age of the facility, and there remains plenty to worry about, said Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center, which has been tracking the site for four clients — Get Oil Out!, the Sierra Club, Citizens Planning Association, and Citizens of Goleta Valley — since the 1994 spill. “Usually when we get involved with coastal oil projects, our response is to oppose,” said Krop. “This is an interesting situation, because they were producing from this lease, and they have a right to apply to resume production. What we want to make sure is that all the risks and impacts be analyzed so that a proper decision can be made.”
Specifically, Krop wants the state to study what’s causing the pressurization, what might alleviate it, what the life of the project would be, and whether it would be feasible to move processing up the coast to the facility at Las Flores Canyon, rather than extend the life of the EOF, whose proximity to Goleta suburbs is a constant environmental fear. She explained, “We want to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the ability to phase out the Ellwood facility.”
Despite the pressurization conundrum, Oggins assured that would be the case. “It’s not an absolute right,” said Oggins of Venoco’s ability to drill there. “It has to be done in a manner that our commissioners determine is safe.”
As part of the environmental review process, there are two public scoping hearings on the project this coming Wednesday, April 3, at 3 and 6 p.m. at Goleta City Hall, 130 Cremona Drive, Suite 3, where citizens can suggest what the report should study. Public comments will also be taken via email (CEQAcomments@slc.ca.gov, with subject line “Revised PRC 421 Recommissioning NOP Comments”) until April 29.
[CORRECTION: The repeated use of the word “drilling” in this article is inaccurate. There is no actual drilling proposed as part of this project, as returning the old well to production is more like opening a tap.]