Orcutt Hill oil benefits less than impacts

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough ran in the Santa Maria Times June 9, 2016: http://santamariatimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/commentary/looking-forward/orcutt-hill-oil-benefits-less-than-impacts/article_b4e19934-b07e-59fc-ae39-7d06a9eadb51.html

In a recent column, Rosemary Holmes described many of the problems with Pacific Coast Energy’s proposal to double the number of cyclic-steaming wells on its property from 96 to 192.

Since the initial 96 wells began pumping high-pressure steam into the Diatomite formation to loosen up the thick crude oil, the oil seeps that have occurred naturally throughout recorded history increased dramatically. The California Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has had to step in to shut down some of the oil production to reduce the seeps.

When seeps occur, seep cans need to be installed to collect the oil. When seeps are discovered, bulldozers need to scrape new roads to the site, unless the seep happens to be adjacent to one of the existing dirt roads.

The new roads and the bulldozed areas around the seep cans are impacting endangered species and the habitat that supports these species. One of these species, which Rosemary Holmes wrote about, is the Lompoc yerba santa. According to the county’s environmental impact report for the project, 360 individual Lompoc yerba santas have been removed already. Many more will be propagated and planted in the area to mitigate this impact from previous drilling impacts.

It is not known how successful this propagation and replanting will be, as this is an experiment to try to save an endangered species.

The other endangered species of concern on Orcutt Hill is the California tiger salamander, or CTS. While 360 individual Lompoc yerba santas are documented to have been destroyed by previous work on the PCEC property, no one knows if any salamanders have been killed. But Orcutt Hill is known habitat for this species. If you are driving a bulldozer to cut a new road to an oil seep and to clear an area for a seep can, how can you know if you uprooted and killed a salamander? You can’t know.

Some people scoff at the notion that a salamander should impede farming, urban development or oil production. But this species could go extinct, like so many others have.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 in recognition of the fact that every species has potential benefits related to medicine, agriculture and other scientific fields. We don’t know what this salamander might mean to us in the future, but if it goes extinct we will never know.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a draft plan to recover this particular salamander species. Part of the recovery plan is to require those who are destroying CTS habitat to buy credits at conservation banks that preserve quality land devoted to the preservation of the species.

As county officials consider approval of this oil-production project, it sadly is not considering a requirement to contribute to such conservation banks.

PCEC is not trying to drive the California tiger salamander to extinction, but the downfall of the species could be an unintended consequence of pumping high-pressure steam into Orcutt Hill.

The environmental impact report finds unavoidable significant impacts to

the Lompoc yerba santa, the tiger salamander habitat, and to water resources. If the county Planning Commission is to approve the expansion of oil production using high-pressure steaming on Orcutt Hill, it will need to approve findings of overriding consideration. The findings presented were deemed to be insufficient.

The findings were mainly based on economic benefits. A few short-term jobs, a few more on-going jobs and some additional tax revenue. Given the unavoidable impacts to biological and water resources, this is not enough. New findings will be considered on June 29.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.