Vote on Price Canyon oil field expansion is delayed over water concerns

Concerns about pumping water during a drought and possible groundwater contamination continue to dog plans to drill an additional 31 wells in the Price Canyon oil field.

For the second time in two months, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission delayed making a final decision on a request by Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas to be given another three years to install a final set of 31 wells under a 10-year permit the county originally issued in 2005. The hearing drew a dozen or so protestors who demonstrated against the new wells in front of the courthouse before the hearing.

After hearing from public speakers, the commission postponed the hearing until Nov. 12 in order to invite state and local water quality officials to appear before the commission and answer questions about whether the additional wells pose a danger to nearby drinking water wells in a time of severe drought.

238 Number of wells Freeport-McMoRan Oil operates in Price Canyon

31Number of wells Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas wants to add

Commissioner Eric Meyer, whose district includes the oil field, said he is concerned about whether too much water is pumped out of the oil field. Some 1,000 barrels of oil a day are pumped out of the field along with at least eight times as much water, which is either pumped back into the ground or treated and discharged into Pismo Creek after the oil has been separated from the water.

“There’s way too much water coming out of the ground since we’ve been sucking it out of the ground since the 1970s,” he said.

County planning staff will ask that officials from the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Board to attend the Nov. 12 meeting to answer questions about whether the pumping is damaging groundwater resources. If they are not available on that date, the hearing will be held in December.

In September, the commission held a lengthy hearing on the oil company’s request and continued it to Thursday to get more information about traffic, noise and odor concerns.

The oil field, which is also called the Arroyo Grande oil field, is located on Price Canyon Road between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. A total of 238 wells currently produce 1,000 barrels of oil a day.

However, the oil field is at the center of several controversies that have heightened public concern about the activities there, most concerning protecting domestic drinking water wells near the oil field.

Twelve people spoke in opposition to the new wells during Thursday’s hearing. Only one person spoke in favor of them.

“During this devastating drought, people living near this oilfield want their underground water supplies protected from the pollution risks,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that organized the protest rally in front of the county courthouse before Thursday’s meeting.

About 50 people attended Thursday’s hearing. Heidi Harmon of San Luis Obispo was one of those who spoke in opposition.

“Will we allow these destructive oil companies to encroach into our county or will we say no?” she asked. “The time has come to transition to renewable energy.”

John Martini, director of governmental affairs with Freeport McMoRan, denied that the oil field endangers water quality. The water pumped out of the field is already tainted with oil and is returned to the same aquifer.

“We do not compete with sources of drinking water to operate the field,” he said. “We are injecting and withdrawing water from the same underground bowl.”

The commission’s deliberations were complicated by the fact that the oil company recently applied to more than triple the area it is allowed to inject water into the groundwater basin beneath the oil field. The expansion is needed because state officials have mistakenly allowed the oil company to drill injection wells outside the allowable area since it was established in 1982.

That expansion was the subject of a Sept. 21 hearing in San Luis Obispo that drew nearly 100 area residents in opposition. Many said the expansion will endanger their drinking water wells.

The oil company has also applied to add an additional 450 wells to the field. The company has asked that that application be put on hold until the injection well expansion issue is settled.

Finally, the oil company Phillips 66 is nearing completion of a pipeline that will connect the oil field to its oil processing facility on the Nipomo Mesa. Once complete at the end of the year, seven daily truck trips between the oil field and refinery will be eliminated.