North America’s shale oil boom that started this decade has been compared to the Gold Rush fever that swept the nation in 1849 — except that the California Gold Rush lured young men to a wild, lawless place in search of fame and fortune, while shale oil is luring corporate oil and gas interests to modern-day Central California in search of market share and profits.
New, unconventional oil extraction methods involving horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’ — along with steam injection, have made shale oil that was trapped in rock newly accessible. The recoverable yield from California’s shale oil deposits has been greatly overestimated and was recently downgraded by the U.S. Energy Information Administration by more than 95 percent.
In San Luis Obispo County, the deposits are often located close to expanding communities where oil industry operations could endanger agriculture, tourism, housing, business, employment, education and quality of life.
In addition to local shale oil, there is a non-local, unconventional oil source that interests the oil and gas industry — North American tar sands. Using rail transportation, low-cost crude oil extracted from tar sands would be transported through neighborhoods to the Phillips 66 refinery at Nipomo for eventual domestic use and export overseas.
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As a result, Central Coast regional planners have seen a growing number of oil-related proposed projects, including oil exploration, extraction, transportation, refining, storage and remediation. In southern San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County, these include:
Nipomo Mesa Santa Maria Refinery rail yard construction.
Huasna Valley oil field development (under litigation).
Porter Ranch oil exploration.
Price Canyon oilfield expansion.
Industry initiative to explore more than 7,700 potential oil-drilling sites.
Rerouting of trucks containing petroleum-contaminated soils.
Each project creates potential impacts for our water supplies and air quality, and each has safety, economic, property and health ramifications for every Central Coast county. All of the projects on this growing list may have combined impacts for the region that would be understated if the projects were analyzed individually.
For example, our county relies heavily on groundwater for domestic use and agriculture. However, oil drilling projects produce toxins that can easily find their way into water sources. Project applicants often claim that these risks are statistically small, but when accidents involving crude oil happen, the results can be devastating to residents and business, and could ruin an aquifer for generations. These risks are disproportionately amplified as projects are added.
As another example, oil projects often involve highway or railroad transportation. A June 2014 report from the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group identified San Luis Obispo County with a “high hazard area” for potential train derailments, while according to the California Office of Emergency Services, the nearest certified emergency hazardous material response teams are in Salinas, Santa Barbara and Bakersfield. Training and equipment requirements can vary from project to project, but all should require local certified hazmat preparedness.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, these so-called “cumulative impacts” include “past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future projects,” which “when considered together, are considerable or which compound or increase other environmental impacts.”
So far, the potential cumulatively considerable impacts of all these projects have not been examined. The large upsurge in oilrelated projects heading our way calls for something more comprehensive than what’s been done.
We need a publicly debated , strategic approach to oil projects in the county — one that outlines conditions under which the county would or would not consider oil production, refinement and transportation projects, and that can help guide future planning decisions.
We urge San Luis Obispo County to stop and reassess the growing oil project lineup, and to start work today developing a comprehensive oil strategy with input from concerned residents and businesses. Until a comprehensive oil strategy and energy plan is debated and implemented, San Luis Obispo County should take the opportunity to impose a moratorium on all pending oil projects.
Tracy Del Rio is president of the Huasna Foundation. Linda Reynolds chairs the Mesa Refinery Watch Steering Group.