A new oil well and small pipeline has been approved in the Carrizo Plain National Monument on an old oil well that conservation groups say had been slated for restoration. Those groups are challenging the approval and say the project falls short of the high environmental standards required to drill on protected lands.
Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity said that under President Donald Trump's administration, "we are seeing they're trying to open more and more public lands to oil and gas drilling without proper environmental review and moving them forward as fast as they can."
E&B Natural Resources Management Corp., an independent oil and gas company based in Bakersfield, proposed drilling a new well on an existing lease on a half-acre site within the Russell Ranch Oil Field. The project, which was proposed in 2012 and approved in March by the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of Interior, would use an existing road and pad located at the base of the Caliente Mountains along the western boundary of the national monument.
"This oil field has been around for many decades, and utilizing this previously disturbed area minimizes land disturbance and is an environmental best practice," E&B spokesperson Amy Roth said. "An environmental assessment was conducted on the proposed well showing no significant impacts by the Bureau of Lane Management."
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But Los Padres ForestWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity say the oil well and pipeline would harm threatened and endangered wildlife like the San Joaquin kit fox and a flowering plant called the Kern mallow, as well as impede scenic views.
It's the first well the Interior Department has approved in the monument since it was established in 2001, the groups said.
Two years ago the BLM approved the oil company's request to abandon a well that hasn't produce oil in decades on the same pad.
One of the environmental concerns in the area is for the California condor, which Belenky said is attracted to oil or gas platforms because they are shiny and look like water.
"It brings them down into harm's way. They see it and come down to investigate. There have been incidents in Los Padres National Forest where condors have been injured by getting oil on them or consuming micro-trash (small pieces of metal)," Belenky said.
The project also includes a proposed pipeline. BLM approved a .12-mile above-ground pipeline, and an alternative to the project listed in the Environmental Assessment would call for a three-quarter-mile underground pipeline along the road.
Belenky said above-ground pipelines can hinder animals' movement across the landscape, and construction equipment can crush burrows or kill animals.
The project could be an example of more oil well approvals to come.
"They certainly might be using it as a test case. At the same time, this oil field has been in decline for several years. It hit its peak in the 1950s, and some documents suggest its nearing the end of its useful life. It's hard to reconcile that with drilling new wells there," said Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch
Existing oil leases were grandfathered in with the monument, which was established by President Bill Clinton in 2001.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained disputed information about the approval history of the pad in question. BLM Bakersfield field manager Gabe Garcia said the new oil well would be drilled on an existing pad that was never slated for restoration, and a different well on the same pad was approved to be abandoned.