New information aired on impacts of proposed oil drilling in Huasna Valley

A Bakersfield-based company has applied to drill exploratory gas and oil wells on two pads built by Phillips Oil in the 1980s. The site is on Porter Ranch near Alamo Road, north of Highway 166 in Huasna Valley.
A Bakersfield-based company has applied to drill exploratory gas and oil wells on two pads built by Phillips Oil in the 1980s. The site is on Porter Ranch near Alamo Road, north of Highway 166 in Huasna Valley. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

An analysis by a Bakersfield oil man seeking a permit for exploratory oil drilling in the Huasna Valley found that even with more trucks rumbling down Alamo Creek Road, any traffic impacts would be low.

Dero Parker hired experts to do the analyses of traffic, noise, water, and other impacts of his proposal in response to two dozen questions posed by San Luis Obispo County planners.

He’s also answered questions about fire safety, potential for spills, and the types of testing that would occur on the Porter Ranch.

The vast property is located off Alamo Creek Road, north of Highway 166, and overlies the Monterey shale formation. Parker, president of Parker Companies Inc., 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 in the Huasna Valley, about 15 miles northeast of Santa Maria.

“Some will express concern no matter how focused the oil activity,” the introduction of Parker’s response to the county states. “To those skeptics, we point to the Porter family’s 170-year-long record of sound stewardship over the ranch and to the applicant’s decades of reputable and successful oil and gas experience.”

Some Huasna Valley residents have said they’re concerned that Parker’s proposal for temporary drilling could become permanent if he finds the oil he’s hoping to locate. If testing is successful and he wants to move toward production, Parker would have to apply for another permit from the county, which likely would include preparation of an environmental impact report.

County senior environmental planner John McKenzie said last week that he had just received the material and had not had a chance to review it yet, but would do so over the next 30 days to determine whether the application is complete.

Planning staff will also determine what level of environmental review is needed. Because of the high interest level in the project, McKenzie said the project would be taken to the county Planning Commission. A decision there could be appealed to county supervisors.

Huasna response

Some Huasna Valley residents have just started reviewing the new information. Doug Timewell, vice president of the Huasna Foundation, said he was alarmed by the projected noise level for the closest two neighbors, whose homes are a half mile and nearly a mile away from the drilling sites (the property lines are closer).

A noise assessment completed by an engineer for Parker concluded that the noise generated by the project will be within the county’s maximum noise limits for the two homes — but would exceed the limits at the property line closest to one of the well pads, though the terrain is uninhabitable.

“Living in these valleys, you become accustomed to NO noise,” Timewell wrote in an email. “I can’t imagine a constant rumbling, day and night, at the levels described — frankly, I’d need to sell my home and move.”

The Porter proposal comes about a year and a half after county supervisors rejected oil exploration company Excelaron’s request to drill as many as 12 oil wells on the Mankins Ranch in the rustic valley 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande.

That proposal deeply concerned Huasna Valley residents, who worried approval could start a wave of new oil exploration applications in the county. Timewell said those concerns have not abated.

“What continues to concern me and others is the lack of a publicly debated and comprehensive energy plan for the county,” he wrote. “What are the conditions that we will or will not allow oil production, refinement, and transportation of oil?”

Timewell suggested a moratorium on oil projects until such a plan is debated. County officials should also consider the combined impacts of all oil-related projects in the county, including a plan by Phillips 66 to build an oil transportation railroad spur at its Nipomo Mesa refinery.

Temporary work

Some work has already been done on the Porter property under a county permit issued to Phillips Petroleum Co. in 1981 for 10 wells to drill and test for oil.

The drilling project area is 778 acres, but Parker has a five-year contract to lease mineral rights on the entire 4,068-acre property. In response to a county question, Parker said landowners often lease mineral rights over their entire holdings “to maximize their cash payments and for ease of working with a single party.”

In a previous interview, Parker said that, depending on seismic data, “we would at least entertain” the option to expand the drilling area. But for now, the project focuses on two existing “pads” that were graded more than 30 years ago.

Access roads also already exist. The work would be temporary — sporadic drilling within a 12-month period — and would use about 98,000 gallons of water per completed well. No fracking is proposed.

“If the first well fails, it is likely no further well(s) would be drilled,” Parker’s response reads. “If the first well succeeds, then the drill rig would be re-mobilized and the process repeated for up to four total wells.”

Judging the shale

Recently, federal energy officials have lowered their estimate of the amount of recoverable oil buried in California’s Monterey shale deposits by 96 percent. According to news reports, they believe only 600 million barrels of oil could be extracted with existing technology, down from 13.7 billion barrels.

When asked about this, Parker said the shale in the coastal region is “a different animal than the Monterey shale in the San Joaquin Valley.”

He said seismic data compiled during the previous project in the 1980s show formations that are shallower and more permeable. In a phone conversation Friday, Parker said he’s tried to satisfy concerns about the project.

“I think we’ve gone well above and beyond the call of duty, and in this situation, rightfully so,” he said. “I think it’s important to satisfy everybody’s concerns. Somebody may throw another curve ball at us, but at least we’ve done the right thing.”

Study specifics

To respond to county planners’ 24 questions, Parker hired a biologist to assess any impacts to plants or wildlife; contracted with an engineer for a noise study; hired a consultant to conduct an archaeological evaluation; and studied water and traffic impacts. Some points include:

• Traffic would access the property along Alamo Creek Road and Highway 166. It would not use Huasna Road, Huasna Townsite Road, or any other approach from the north. An additional 225 vehicles per week (including nine trucks) would use Alamo Creek Road, based on a projection by project representative Christine Halley of TJ Cross Engineers in Bakersfield. At most, she projects a maximum of 23 utility trucks (larger vehicles likely used to transport equipment, deliver fuel or haul away vehicles) a week on the road.

• The archaeological evaluation found no evidence of cultural resources. Three archaeological sites identified during a 1981 study of Porter Ranch are not near the project area.

• The biological study said there may be impacts to wildlife and plants, and suggested ways to avoid them, including working outside the nesting bird season (typically Feb. 15 to Aug. 15), and using erosion control measures.

• Water would come from an irrigation well within one mile from both drill sites. The water comes either from deposits that underlie Alamo Creek or the upper area of the Santa Maria Valley groundwater basin. The well serves at least 20 acres of crops on the Porter Ranch.

• Water used in the drilling process will be put in holding tanks and disposed off-site. • Several measures will be taken to minimize the potential for a rural wild-land fire. A 21,000-gallon water tank and fire extinguishers will be on site.

• Exploratory drilling involves a six-man crew on three shifts per day over a 10-day-per-well drilling phase.

• The closest drilling pad is located more than 1,200 feet from Alamo Creek (and 300 feet above it). To prevent any leaks and spills, no permanent or underground storage tanks are proposed and crews would be on site around-the-clock during the drilling phase of each well. Produced fluids would be regularly hauled away.

Learn more: For details on the Porter Ranch proposal, click here »