Excelaron drilling project a bad fit for Huasna Valley

Excelaron deserves credit for attempting to make its proposed oil drilling operation in the Huasna Valley as unobtrusive as possible.

But tweaking the plan at this stage is not enough; the Excelaron project is simply not a good fit for the area.

The county planning department staff said as much when it recommended denial. The Planning Commission did as well, when it voted 4-1 to deny the application. The county Board of Supervisors also should recognize this is a bad idea by denying Excelaron’s request for acontinuance — it says more time is needed to consider aslightly scaled-down proposal — and rejecting the application on Tuesday.

Drilling in the area may have been appropriate many decades ago. But not today, when there are approximately 200 people living in the Huasna Valley and when we have policies in place to protect individuals from spills, fires and other hazards associated with oil production.

The county has a sensible guideline that recommends a sufficient buffer between oil facilities and neighboring residences. This proposal does not meet that.

Oil drilling would expose Huasna Valley residents to noise, traffic, odors and the threat of spills and, what’s most concerning to us, to a significant fire hazard.

That’s spelled out in a county document: “The project would increase the fire hazard potential in a very high fire hazard area that is more than 30 minutes from the closet fire station. The project would introduce flammable or explosive substances to the area (e.g. propane, crude oil, natural gas, etc.), as well as construction and maintenance practices that would introduce ignition sources and increase the risk for wildland fires ”

True, steps could be taken to minimize the risk, such as having plenty of water stored on site for fire suppression and training oil field operators to respond to wildfires.

But those measures would only reduce the potential risk of a major fire, not eliminate it.

There are concerns, too, about the adequacy of the route in and out of the field, especially because one of the roads — aprivate road on the Porter Ranch — is subject to occasional flooding.

Excelaron has said it will stop production during those rare times when the road is flooded, but that raises another question.

Given the many constraints on the project — especially Excelaron’s offer to drill no more than 12 production wells — opponents have raised doubts about the operation’s economic viability. They question whether the operation can produce anything close to 1,000 barrels per day, which is the ceiling on production.

We, too, wonder about the potential, but frankly, if investors want to take that risk, that’s their business — as long as regulators ensure that Excelaron has the wherewithal to clean up the site when it’s done.

We do, however, share opponents’ concern that this operation, if successful, could lead to much more intensive drilling in the Huasna Valley.

Excelaron representatives say that’s pure speculation.

Agreed. But it’s disingenuous not to acknowledge that, if the exploratory phase goes well, there will be pressure on the county to allow more development.

And if the limited Excelaron proposal has been found to be inconsistent with county policy, how in the world could the county justify even more intensive development?

It can’t.

The Board of Supervisors should shut the door now.

Excelaron has formally requested the county to grant a continuance to allow time to consider the environmental impacts of aslightly scaleddown alternative it recently proposed.

The county staff believes such study is unnecessary: “ the proposed revision’s impacts already have been evaluated in the EIR (environmental impact report),” according to a county staff report.

Enough time has been spent reviewing, revising and re-reviewing.

The latest set of minor revisions proposed by Excelaron do not require months of additional study.

No promises of jobs, of tax revenue or donations to local schools are going to change the fact that this project is incompatible with county policy.

We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to deny the request for acontinuance and uphold the Planning Commission’s denial of the project.

Editorials are the opinion of the Tribune.