What started more than a year ago as a seemingly innocuous proposal to reopen an old well off Haskell’s Beach may become a death penalty for Venoco’s Ellwood Onshore Facility (EOF), the processing plant between Sandpiper Golf Club and the Bacara Resort that the oil company took over in 1997. With the State Lands Commission expected to approve that project on Wednesday, the City of Goleta took preemptive steps in City Hall on Tuesday night to fight back, essentially going for the throat of the 40-plus-year-old EOF.
A split Goleta City Council — with Tony Vallejo and Roger Aceves both dissenting — called for a March 2015 hearing to consider shutting down the EOF for good. The council also sent a strongly worded letter to the State Lands Commission, reiterating concerns over the “inadequate” environmental analysis of the project and a number of errors made by State Lands’ staff. That was bolstered by a 200-page letter sent by the Sohagi Law Group, which the city retained to aid in this battle.
The March hearing will fall under the protocol of an updated ordinance, also passed by the same split of votes Tuesday night, to terminate legal but nonconforming uses in the city. That’s how the EOF, which is surrounded by recreational zoning, has been classified since 1991, six years before Venoco purchased the plant and 11 years before Goleta became a city. About half of the two dozen public speakers, including a number of Venoco employees wearing blue jumpsuits, spoke against the ordinance update, with some fearing it would affect garage conversions, real estate prices, and business development.
But the council majority determined those concerns were outweighed by what staff called an “archaic” ordinance that would have required quasi-judicial proceedings that could be triggered by any member of the public. The updated ordinance, which still needs a second vote to be adopted in January, now puts City Council in charge of proposing such terminations, establishes a standard five-year shutdown timeline that can be appealed (there was no previous minimum), and turns the process into a more familiar public hearing, sans stenographers, lawyers, and cross-examinations, which the old ordinance required.
“This is an anomaly on the West Coast: We have a processing plant in our urban environment,” said Councilmember Jim Farr, who voted along with Paula Perotte and Michael Bennett in favor of the night’s EOF-aimed decisions. “We are attempting to maintain … the ability of our city to control our destiny and the future.”
That control was very much called in doubt by Venoco’s proposal to reopen the old well, accessed from a rusty pier extending from the bluffs below Sandpiper and shut down in the mid-1990s due to leaks when Mobil owned it. Since March 2013, Venoco and the State Lands Commission have steadily argued that the oil field was repressurizing, that the reopened well wouldn’t extend the life of the EOF, and that if the city didn’t process the permits required, Venoco would pursue oil processing atop the pier.
The city and others expressed numerous concerns — there’s no proof of repressurization, for instance — and asked for the environmental report to analyze processing up the coast at Las Flores Canyon instead, which is where Santa Barbara County voters in 1998 demanded all new South Coast oil be handled. State Lands didn’t comply with that request, according to the city, and, in a final defiant move, ignored requests to move the meeting away from the holidays and closer to Goleta. Instead, State Lands scheduled the meeting just one week before Christmas and in Newport Beach, further away than the originally scheduled Los Angeles meeting.
So City Council members and staffers left Tuesday night’s meeting after 10 p.m. to drive to Newport Beach, where they planned to argue their case once again. With the EOF potentially off the table as a place to process the pier oil, Goleta City Attorney Tim Giles hopes State Lands will look a little more closely at the next step. “This should make the fundamental flaw in all of their arguments stand out,” said Giles. “Why approve processing at the EOF if the EOF is going away?”