Oil Hunting with Dynamite in Cuyama

Appeals Filed over County Approval of 24-Square-Mile Exploration Plan

A carrot truck in Cuyama Valley heads to market
Paul Wellman (file)

The plan to drop sticks of dynamite in nearly 3,500 holes across a 24-square-mile stretch of the Cuyama Valley and record the booms with teams of low-flying helicopters, trucks, and all-terrain vehicles in a grand hunt for oil hit a snag this week, when environmental groups appealed the County of Santa Barbara’s March 9 decision to allow that exploration without requiring public review. The groups were alerted by some concerned Cuyama residents, who are worried about the future of their often forgotten high desert slice of northeastern Santa Barbara County, where carrot fields and vineyards mix with oil wells and the Los Padres National Forest.

Known as seismic testing, this type of exploration is one of the latest technologies being used across the world to find hard-to-reach deposits of oil, which can then be extracted through either hydraulic fracturing — a.k.a. “fracking,” whereby liquid and other materials are pumped into the ground to force out the oil and/or natural gas — or steam injection, in which steam is pumped down to heat the oil so that it flows better and is easier to extract. Seismic proponents, such as the Bakersfield company proposing this work, E & B Natural Resources, have argued that the technology offers fewer impacts to the surrounding landscape than traditional drilling of wells and eventually leads to more efficient oil extraction.

But that doesn’t mean it should get a free pass, say environmentalists. “The blasting will take place in close proximity to the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument, and could represent the first step toward intense oil field development in this remote region of Santa Barbara County,” explained Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch, who was alerted to the permit approval by Cuyama residents and explained that the 11-pound sticks of dynamite proposed are each equivalent to about one hand grenade. “We hope that the county will take a closer look at the potential environmental impacts before allowing the widespread use of explosives, helicopters, and ATVs in this rural and ecologically sensitive region.”

ForestWatch filed its appeal on Monday, arguing that the county staff should not have been able to mark this project as exempt under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as did the Environmental Defense Center, whose attorney Brian Segee echoed Kuyper’s worries. “There has been intensified and increased oil development in North County in recent years, but for the most part it seems that the county is permitting this expansion routinely through the use of CEQA exemptions,” said Segee. “Basically, people have not been paying that close of attention to what’s happening in North County.”

Although it’s technically an exemption from CEQA, the approval features 11 pages mandating 28 separate conditions and mitigations for the testing. “The fact that the county has concluded that these mitigation measures are necessary in itself shows how an exemption is improper,” said Segee. “They have conditions for everything from burrowing owls to kit foxes to songbirds.”

The appeals also argue that the county is not considering the combined effect of this and potential future projects in the Cuyama Valley. “Approvals are happening in a piecemeal fashion,” said Segee. “Nobody has taken a step back yet and looked at the cumulative effects. That should be looked at as soon as possible.”

The county, meanwhile, said the decision to grant the exemption was not taken lightly. “We carefully considered this for some time,” said the county energy division’s John Karamitsos. Though the county approved a seismic testing project for Foxen Canyon a year or so ago, the Cuyama plan is far more massive in scope. Explained Karamitsos, “In my experience, we’ve never had a similar project.”

The appeals will next come before the county’s Planning Commission for a hearing sometime in the near future.


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