SLO County drilling plans draw protest and praise

Excelaron proposed oil drilling at sites on the second ridge behind the Mankins Ranch in the Huasna Valley east of Arroyo Grande.
Excelaron proposed oil drilling at sites on the second ridge behind the Mankins Ranch in the Huasna Valley east of Arroyo Grande. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The county Planning Commission heard an afternoon of emotional public testimony regarding plans by the oil company Excelaron to put as many as 12 wells into the Huasna Valley, a rural area 12 miles east of Arroyo Grande.

Most of those testifying were residents of the isolated area who articulated a long list of concerns. The most common was loss of the area’s quiet, bucolic character.

The fear of increased fire danger, as well as the possibility that the valley’s environment could be ruined by a spill or the crash of a tanker truck, were also voiced.

“Spill and accidents are the rule rather than the exception,” said valley resident Ian Jackson.

Supporters of the project cited the need to increase domestic sources of oil as well as the need to respect the property and mineral rights of landowners. Others praised Excelaron’s offer to donate $1 per barrel of oil for the installation of solar panels in local schools.

The commission will hold another daylong hearing on the project March 8.

For their part, representatives of Excelaron came out strong. In letters and in their testimony to the commission, the company blasted the county’s staff report with its recommendation that the project be denied as “breathtaking,” saying it is full of errors, exaggerations and mischaracterizations.

“In this case, every error appears to greatly exaggerate the impacts of the project, while none of the errors understate the project impacts,” wrote Patrick Mitchell, an attorney representing the oil company.

The recommendation to reject the project is based on five significant and unavoidable effects on the environment. These are visual, noise and odor impacts as well as damage to wildlife in the event of a spill and a general incompatibility with the valley’s land-use guidelines.

Excelaron also criticized a county’s alternative to the proposed project as bizarre and improper. County staff recommended eliminating one of two well pads as a way to minimize its impacts.

While much of the opposition to the project comes from Huasna Valley residents, the project has also garnered opposition from at least one influential source. The fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger owns a 4,834-acre ranch three miles to the north of the proposed project.

The restaurant company submitted hundreds of pages of documentation in opposition to the project. They emphasized the common criticism that the project will destroy the rural character of the Huasna Valley, especially because of noise, odor and visual impacts.

“Is this what we want for our pristine corner of San Luis Obispo County so that Excelaron might extract a few barrels of oil and so that a few promoters and maybe their investors can try to eke out a profit for a few years while forever changing the character of the Huasna Valley? We think not,” wrote Tom Davis, an attorney for the burger company in a letter to the commission.

The project was first proposed in 2006 and calls for an exploration phase of four wells. If the oil deposits are considered viable, as many as eight more wells could be added.

Hot water would be injected into the wells to reduce the oil’s viscosity and make it easier to pump. The project would be limited to 1,000 barrels a day, which would be trucked out with a maximum of six round trips a day.

The company says it has already spent $4 million on local consultants, including $500,000 for an environmental impact report.