County rejects oil drilling bid in Huasna Valley

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 8, 2012 

The county Planning Commission on Thursday rejected plans to drill as many as 12 oil wells in the rural Huasna Valley, citing noise, fire danger and incompatibility of oil drilling with the area.

The vote to deny the project was 4-1 with Commissioner Dan O’Grady dissenting, saying he wanted to continue discussions in an effort to balance the benefits with the negative impacts of the project.

Carol Florence, planner for the applicant, Excelaron, said she would have to consult with her client but thinks that it is very likely that the decision will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Geologists with Excelaron estimate 100 million barrels of oil lie under the Huasna Valley, with about 6 million barrels recoverable using a hot water injection method. Florence tried to assure the commission that concerns cited by residents and county planning staff could be minimized. Each of the five commissioners had somewhat different concerns and opinions about the project.

The most adamant commissioner against the plan was Carlyn Christianson, who represents Supervisor Adam Hill. She said the isolated and pastoral Huasna Valley is not a suitable place for oil production. The negative impacts easily outweigh the economic and energy benefits of the project, she said.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Oil just doesn’t go with the Huasna Valley. It hasn’t in the past and shouldn’t in the future.”

Commissioner Ken Topping, who represents Supervisor Bruce Gibson, was also solidly against the project. His main objection was fire danger.

County planners say the fire danger is high because the terrain of the project area is steep and covered with heavy brush. Cal Fire officials say it would take a fire engine at least a half an hour to reach the gate to the property and an additional five or 10 minutes to reach the drilling site.

“To me, it just doesn’t make sense to put a new source of ignition in a place classified by the state as a high fire-risk area,” Topping said.

Commissioner Tim Murphy was concerned most about noise, with a secondary concern about the compatibility of oil production. The Huasna Valley is part of the district of Supervisor Paul Teixeira, whom Murphy represents on the commission.

Many of the residents who spoke against the project talked about the profound quiet of the valley and how even small noises can travel long distances. Murphy said he would be willing to discuss modifying the project to minimize the noise impacts, but the other commissioners were not in favor of that.

Commissioner Jim Irving, who represents Supervisor Frank Mecham, said a balance could be found to make the project feasible. He suggested approving only the exploratory phase of the project, which would involve four wells.

Planning staff and several other commissioners were unsympathetic to this approach, saying that limiting the permit to exploration would not solve the many problems associated with eventually going into full production.

O’Grady, who represents Supervisor Jim Patterson, made several unsuccessful attempts to talk the other commissioners into a more detailed discussion of the many aspects of the project and possible ways to mitigate them. He said this was the approach the commission used a year ago to approve two large commercial solar plants on the Carrizo Plain.

Public comment Thursday was 5-1 against the project. Most of the speakers were Huasna Valley residents who said oil production would destroy the idyllic quality of the area.

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