Huasna residents voice concerns about oil-drilling proposal

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 25, 2014 

If a Monday meeting is any indicator of things to come, Bakersfield businessman Dero Parker is likely to face challenges from Huasna Valley residents as he seeks a permit for exploratory oil drilling on the Porter Ranch in southern San Luis Obispo County.

About 75 people crowded into a meeting room to hear Parker present his project to the South County Advisory Council, a volunteer organization that gathers public input and makes recommendations on projects to county planning commissioners and supervisors.

The tone of the meeting was at times contentious, as attendees fired off questions from their seats and sometimes interrupted Parker’s answers. One person was clearly heard saying, “You guys stink.”

Some Huasna Valley residents argued that Parker’s proposal for temporary drilling could become permanent if he finds the oil he’s hoping to locate.

“You already have your foot in the door,” said Marcia Burtt, who lives on property next to the Porter Ranch. She was chiefly worried about the project’s impact on an underground aquifer she said underlies both properties and is used for drinking water, irrigation and cattle troughs.

Other Huasna residents voiced concerns about traffic, noise and fire danger.

“You kind of get the feeling here that people are concerned,” said Tracy Del Rio, interim president of the nonprofit Huasna Foundation.

“If the Porter Ranch goes forward, and Excelaron resurrects itself, what does that mean to the Huasna community as a whole?” she added. “The Huasna community doesn’t want the Huasna Valley to turn into an oil-producing community.”

Parker was equally passionate, and insisted that if the first well or two that he drills doesn’t reveal oil that is commercially viable or easy to pull out of the ground, he will pack up and go home.

“Mr. Porter has a right to see if he has something underground,” Parker said. “They’ve owned this land since the 1800s.”

Parker of PEOCO LLC has filed an application to San Luis Obispo County’s planning department to drill and test up to four exploratory oil and gas wells on two existing pads on the Porter Ranch near the Huasna Valley. The vast property is accessible off Alamo Creek Road, north of Highway 166.

Some work has already been done on the Porter property under a county permit issued to Phillips Petroleum Co. in 1981 to drill and test for oil.

Parker is requesting a minor use permit, which does not require a public hearing unless someone requests a hearing before a county planning staff member. If the hearing officer’s decision is appealed, the proposal would go to the Board of Supervisors.

If testing is successful and he wants to move toward production, Parker would have to apply for another permit from the county, which would likely include preparation of an environmental impact report.

County planners sent Parker a list of 24 questions about his project, and have not yet formally accepted his application for processing while awaiting his responses, project manager John McKenzie said.

The county agricultural preserve review committee will discuss whether the Porter property, which has been under Williamson Act contract since the 1970s, can remain in the program, he said.

The program allows farmers and ranchers substantial property tax breaks if they sign 10- or 20-year nondevelopment contracts.

The Porter Ranch property is southeast of where oil exploration company Excelaron failed to get permission to drill as many as 12 oil wells on the Mankins Ranch in the remote Huasna Valley.

A few years ago, the committee determined the Excelaron proposal was compatible with the program. A part of the Mankins Ranch is under Williamson Act contract.

After the Board of Supervisors rejected its application in 2012, Excelaron filed a lawsuit seeking $6.24 billion in damages.

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge dismissed the case on a technicality, but Excelaron appealed the ruling to the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The South County Advisory Council didn’t make a recommendation Monday on the Porter Ranch proposal, instead tabling the issue until more information is available.

South County Advisory Council board member Dick Wright suggested that it might benefit the community to allow Parker to go forward with the exploratory drilling.

“If they drilled a well and found nothing, then that might be the end of drilling,” he said.

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