Can this pretty pink flower stop the Arroyo Grande Oil Field expansion?

Environmentalists are turning to a rare and powerful plant in their battle against plans to expand oil drilling at the Price Canyon Oil Field in Arroyo Grande.

It’s rare because the annual herb only grows in fine sandy soils between Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. It’s powerful because the plant has stopped development before.

Pismo clarkia, a bushy plant in the primrose family, has silky white and pink flowers that bloom all summer long. Its status as an endangered species is one that offers legal leverage.

The plant has played the role of hero and villain in recent stories of South County life.

More than a decade ago, plans to develop in the hills east of Arroyo Grande were halted by neighbors, in part, under the premise that the area was Pismo clarkia habitat.

Years later, in 2009, Arroyo Grande residents were told by the state they couldn’t mow dry brush and grass for fire prevention because the flower was among the weeds.

Now, the Center for Biological Diversity is evoking the plant’s status again, saying that a federal agency’s decision to exempt a local water aquifer from clean water rules ignored the potential harm to Pismo clarkia.

Environmental group threatens to sue Trump’s EPA

For years, a coalition of local environmentalists and organizations has fought plans for expansion at the oilfield in South County — mostly by highlighting concerns about the oil industry’s affect on water and climate change.

The most recent attempt failed when San Luis Obispo County voters rejected an proposition to ban fracking and new oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county.

Nevertheless, environmentalists persist.

On Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if the agency doesn’t overturn its April decision to approve an aquifer exemption beneath Price Canyon Oil Field.

The threat was communicated in a letter addressed to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who was appointed by President Donald Trump after former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in early July.

The EPA-approved aquifer exemption allows Sentinel Peak Resources to inject more wastewater into the groundwater basin known as the Dollie Sands Member of the Pismo Formation.

The approval gave the company a green light to drill dozens of new wells and move forward with the permitting process for an expansion of 431 additional new wells.

And what plant grows in and around the oilfield? Pismo clarkia, according to the Center.

“Any further activity and further production at the oilfield threatens the flower,” according to Maya Golden-Krasner, with the Center’s Climate Law Institute. She talked to The Tribune via phone after sending the letter.

“I don’t want to put one more species out of existence to save this dying industry,” Golden-Krasner said.

The federal government failed to think about those potential effects and failed to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to find out what those effects may be, she said.

In doing so, Golden-Krasner alleges, the EPA violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In its approval, the EPA said it didn’t need to consider endangered species because the aquifer exemption “changes the jurisdictional status of a confined aquifer hundreds of feed underground,” where “none of the species of concern are present.”

In addition, the approval document says, “it is unclear or speculative whether any listed species or critical habitat overlaps with the surface-level activities.”

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com