Appeal of new oil wells rejected by County Planning Commission

June 05, 2013
Santa Paula News

After just minutes of deliberation following nearly eight hours of testimony heard, in a three to two vote the Planning Commission agreed with the recommendations of County Planning staff and upheld the original approval of Planning Director Kim Prilhart that allows Mirada Petroleum to drill nine new wells and rework two existing wells in an existing oil field in the hills above Santa Paula, appellants said the decision was done without adequate environmental review.

Around 60 people were present on May 30 in support of the appeal. Two went on the record in support of Mirada’s plan, one a resident of Los Angeles. During public comment the Commission heard stories of personal experiences with oil companies in the area. 

“The American people have gotten so damn greedy, they don’t want to take care of each other,” said Ozzy Osborne, a nearly 94-year-old resident, living near where the new wells will go. Nine of the 12 oil and gas wells on his property are within 500 feet of his house. He said he receives no compensation from Vintage Petroleum (owned by Occidental Petroleum), the company that currently operates all the wells on his property. And the company has rights to cross his land at all times to get to their wells. He told of his decades long struggles with oil operators. During his emotional testimony, bringing him near to tears, Osborne said, “They have access to your property, 24 hours a day. The property owner has no rights. All I got is promises.” 

“No witness, No crime. [That is the oil company motto].” said Rod Osborne, who accompanied his father to the hearing. He shared stories about spills, garbage and lack of suitable bathroom facilities being provided for oil field workers. 

“First hand experience trumps paperwork,” said Commissioner Nora Aidukas - District 2. She expressed interest in the stories of residents who live in the area and their interactions with oil companies over the years. Aidukas voted to support the appeal mainly, she said, because she questioned whether or not a full environmental review was required because the federally endangered California condor resides in the area and potential impacts of the project on the condor may not have been adequately considered by planning staff. 

Commissioners Paul Magie (Dist. 1, Ojai area), Stephen Onstot (Dist. 3) and Michael Wesner voted against the appeal. Aidukas was joined by Commissioner Richard Rodriguez (Dist 5) in supporting the appeal.

The Environmental Defense Center’s (EDC) Brian Segee represented Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG) in the appeal and provided evidence that County Planning should have performed a subsequent environmental impact report for this project. 

“We believe that we offered a strong case before the Planning Commission in support of CFROG, but the reality is that this appeal was probably going to wind up before the Board of Supervisors regardless of yesterday’s outcome,” said Segee.  “We haven’t yet reached a formal decision on taking the next step but think the approval of the Upper Ojai oil well proposal highlights fundamental problems in the County’s routine reliance on badly outdated, decades-old permits and insufficient analysis of the oil industry’s impacts on its neighbors, the environment, and other leading economic drivers such as agriculture and tourism.”

Last year, Mirada Petroleum of Santa Paula applied to add the wells to an existing conditional use permit; such a change is called a minor modification by County Planning rules. Earlier this year at a public hearing on the project, about 20 concerned residents raised objections to the project, asking to see evidence of the County Planning Divisions findings that there would not be significant impacts from the oil and gas wells being added, and so no further environmental impact report needed to be done. 

“It is only nine new wells,” said Kate Neiswender, attorney for Mirada. “And we are not going to frack.” She pointed out that Mirada owner Scott Price has indicated in his application that he has no plans to use the controversial well completion technique on these wells and that the new wells will be put in over a span of 25 years. She did point out that if they do determine they need to frack the wells, they would have to come back before the County for another modification to their permit. The EDC says that is one reason the project should have further environmental review. 

Segee pointed out that despite what Mirada says in it’s application, that it does not intend to frack, the EDC has geological evidence that it may not be possible for Mirada to get at any oil using “conventional” oil extraction practices. And that is where enhanced oil recovery techniques come into play. Mirada is not - nor is any oil company operating in the County - required, at this time to reveal what techniques they plan to use.

“The [conditions listed] of a CUP become an extension of the law,” said Brian Baca, head of the office that handles oil company land use permits in County Planning. “If we know of any violations [the County can enforce consequences] up to and including revoking the permit.” 

Appellants were skeptical about Mirada following the letter of the law because they say Mirada has been in violation of the current CUP for nearly 20 years by using Koenigstein Road, which is not allowed by their current permit. 

“I’m not an attorney, but I think that is illegal,” said Mike Stubblefield, a resident of Oxnard and speaking for the Los Padres Sierra Club, speaking about Mirada not abiding by all conditions of their current CUP.

The appellants have ten days in which to decide if they are going to appeal and take their case before the Board of Supervisors.

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