The public will soon have an opportunity to scrutinize comprehensive plans to drill 12 oil wells in the Huasna Valley.
The project’s environmental analysis could be published as early as this month, triggering a 45-day review period and a series of public meetings. If approved, the oil company Excelaron could take as many as six truckloads or 1,000 barrels of oil a day out of the field.
The project is proposed for the Mankins Ranch, 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande in the rural and sparsely populated Huasna Valley. If there are no delays, the project could be considered by the county Planning Commission in late summer or early fall, said John McKenzie, the project’s county planner.
In the meantime, county planners will hold a public workshop on the project, likely in Arroyo Grande, sometime during the public review phase. Excelaron will hold its own workshops in each of the five county supervisors’ districts.
Although oil fields were once common in San Luis Obispo, proposals for new drilling are rare, particularly those that reach this level of planning. The county’s only operating oil field is Plains Oil’s Price Canyon oil field between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach.
Excelaron is planning several phases for the project. The first would be a six-month pilot program in which four test wells would be drilled to determine if there is enough oil in the ground to make the project economically feasible.
Oil has been produced from the field several times over the past century, and Excelaron officials are optimistic that the current high prices for crude oil will make the venture financially pencil out, although they won’t know for sure until the pilot program is complete, said Carol Florence, Excelaron’s planning consultant.
“It’s a known entity,” she said. “It’s not like we are going in exploring.”
If feasible, the project would go into the production phase with as many as 12 wells operating over an estimated lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Facilities would consist of two drill pads and a truck loading area, covering 2 acres in total.
Typical of the Central Coast, the oil in the field is lower-quality heavy crude with the consistency of molasses. Hot water would be injected into the oil-bearing formations in order to loosen it up enough to pump.
Huasna Valley residents have raised numerous concerns about the project, McKenzie said. An estimated 80 households, or about 200 people, live in the area. They have formed the Huasna Valley Association to monitor the project.
They are eagerly awaiting the release of the project’s environmental impact report and expect to have many comments on it, said Ron Skinner, the group’s spokesman. However, they are critical of the timing of the report’s release so that the public review period will take place over the summer, when many people are on vacation.
“The Huasna Valley Association would much rather see the public comment period for this complex project with its multitude of issues be pushed back until fall so that the public is able to fully participate in the process,” he said.
Concerns include traffic on Huasna Valley Road, water quality, smell, aesthetics and a reduction in the rural quality of the area. Excelaron consultants say the oil company has addressed or minimized those concerns.
“It’s not the big, horrible oil company that a lot of people think it is,” said Robyn Letters, who serves on an advisory board for the project and is owner of the polling firm Opinion Studies, which Excelaron has hired as a consultant.
Most importantly, consultants say, the truck haul route has been changed to avoid using winding Huasna Valley Road into Arroyo Grande. Instead, the trucks will travel south, mostly on private roads, to Highway 166, where they will take the crude to a yet-to-be-determined refinery.
The field is expected to produce little or no natural gas, so the project will not emit the kind of rotten egg smell associated with the Price Canyon oil field, Florence said.
The project is expected to employ as many as 100 people during its development and production, with 31 fulltime and 15 part-time positions expected during operation. The company would pay from $100,000 to $500,000 a year to the county in fees.
If history is any indication, the project could have a rough regulatory review. Initially proposed in 2007, the project has already suffered several delays as the company dealt with issues and concerns raised by residents and county planners.
One of these was the cleanup a year ago of abandoned wells, tanks and other equipment leftover from previous drilling attempts. Money for the cleanup came from a state fund maintained for this purpose from petroleum industry fees.