The City of Goleta is suing the State Lands Commission, claiming that the latter’s decision to allow Venoco, Inc. to reopen an old oil well off of the Ellwood Coast was based on a severely deficient environmental report.

The lawsuit — filed on January 16 and expected by most involved after the commission’s unanimous vote of approval last month — cites almost every aspect of the document as lacking proper data, from poor analysis of potential impacts to nearby creeks and coastal critters to insufficient sections on structural safety and questionable claims about the basic science of the well’s geology. The city, which is simultaneously considering a move to shut down the Ellwood Onshore Facility (EOF) where the resulting oil would be processed, wants the December decision to be set aside and the report to be redone.

City attorney Tim Giles believes that the strongest of the nearly 100 deficiency claims is that the commission did not truly examine the alternative of processing the oil up the coast at Las Flores Canyon, which is where Santa Barbara County residents voted in the 1990s to send all future South Coast oil processing. The EOF, located on the beach between the Bacara Resort and Sandpiper Golf Course, is the only other South Coast locale where processing takes places, and it has been considered a nonconforming use for a quarter-century. It sits within the City of Goleta’s borders, but the well — which was shut in the 1990s — is located just offshore, which puts it in the jurisdiction of State Lands. The city raised objections to the lack of Las Flores analysis earlier in the environmental review process, and the report was amended to bolster that section, but the commission essentially decided it was not a viable option.

“As opposed to moving toward Las Flores processing, they’re doing everything they can to avoid going there,” said Giles. “The entire approval is built upon a premise that the EOF is going to be there…It really underscores why the whole environmental analysis is flawed because it is built on the premise that the EOF is going to be there. If it’s not available, then there is no alternative analysis that they can rely upon.”

Giles believes that the nature of the December hearing, in which the highly controversial item was approved in less than an hour, is further evidence of how the commission mishandled the project. “None of the commissioners even bothered to show up — they all sent representatives instead,” said Giles. “There was no deliberation, no discussion of the issues raised. They dismissed them out of hand. Their minds were made up when they came in.” State Lands’ spokesperson Sheri Pemberton said that the commission had just received the filing, explaining, “We are still analyzing the complaint and therefore cannot comment at this time.”

Giles doesn’t expect the lawsuit to be decided for at least six months. Until then, the city will not be approving any of the additional permits needed by Venoco to move forward with the project, and the company has yet to submit any to date. In the meantime, the city is likely to hold a hearing about the future shutdown of the EOF, but that discussion has not been calendared yet.


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