The public dissection of a proposed oil drilling project along the Carpinteria Bluffs began in earnest this week as the city’s Environmental Review Committee (ERC) held the first meaningful discourse on the plan. For nearly four hours Monday night, members of a standing-room-only crowd spoke their minds on Venoco’s Paredon Oil and Gas drilling project, pointing out perceived flaws with the plan’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). In the end, the five-member ERC, which works as an advisory body to the city’s Planning Commission, opted to continue the hearing until early this summer so that the EIR’s author, Marine Research Specialists, could better address concerns about the adequacy of the 864-page document. In the meantime, Carpinteria citizens are left debating the merits of overlooking several flaws associated with the plan in exchange for millions in anticipated revenue.
The Paredon Project-which aims to harvest more than 20 million barrels of previously inaccessible offshore crude oil via slant drilling technologies-has surged to the forefront of concern for area residents. With their eyes on this summer’s public approval gauntlet, which involves both Carpinteria’s Planning Commission and City Council, Veneco employees have been making house calls to neighbors, preaching the project’s benefits. With Venoco estimating that Paredon will net the city as much as $108 million in royalties over its 14- to 16-year lifespan, Carp residents are facing a classic “deal with the devil” scenario in which they would need to accept at least 11 Class 1 “unmitigatable” environmental impacts from the project, such as potential oil spills, surface and groundwater contamination, and viewshed destruction by a proposed 175-foot-tall exploratory drilling rig in order to enjoy the monetary rewards. (The height of the rig, which will only be on the property for the first five years of drilling, would be reduced to 140 feet after the first six months.) As Ted Rhodes, the director of opponent Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, said, “Basically, people are being wooed and blinded by the promise of money : A portion of the town could wind up looking like Avila Beach if they’re not careful.”
The purpose of Monday night’s hearing was to make sure that the final EIR accurately reflects the realities of the Paredon Project so that, in turn, the Planning Commission and the City Council can make the best-informed decisions possible. To that end, Environmental Defense Center (EDC) attorney Nathan Alley, speaking on behalf of Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, the Carpinteria Valley Association, Get Oil Out!, and the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club, identified three areas that the EDC feels the current document erroneously classifies as less than severe. The first and foremost is the impact that noise from the drilling activity will have on surrounding neighborhoods, the nearby nature preserve at the bluffs, as well as the seal rookery on the beach below. While Venoco is promising to take all measures necessary to muffle the sounds of oil harvesting, critics complain that the current noise thresholds are unfairly based on a soundscape that includes constant ambient train noise in its baseline and also is calculated from the nearest residence rather than the boundary of the project area itself. Second, the project will increase greenhouse gas in the area-a fact that Alley argues would conflict with a state mandate to reduce such emissions in the coming years. (It should be noted that this same line of argument played a major role in derailing a recent proposal for a liquefied natural gas facility in Santa Barbara Channel waters). Third, Alley and others in attendance were concerned that the potential water quality impacts were underrepresented in the document.
According to ERC Chair Jackie Campbell, the matter will return to the committee in “about six to eight weeks,” at which time authors of the EIR will address the issues raised by the EDC and others.