VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – Three months after halting a contentious 895-home development project on Southern California’s largest swath of undeveloped coastal wetland, state regulators on Friday approved an application to overhaul and expand an oilfield at the disputed site.
Over concerns of destroying protected plant species, grading over tribal archaeological sites and drilling into an active fault line, the California Coastal Commission voted 8-1 to approve up to 77 new wells on the Banning Ranch open space.
“I do believe that this is an effort to consolidate and improve the environment,” Commissioner Steve Kinsey said.
After two hours of public comment and discussion, the commissioners accepted a staff recommendation to approve the oilfield expansion. Four commissioners held ex parte meetings with the applicant before Friday’s hearing and were required to make the communications public before the item was heard.
The oilfield has been in operation for over 70 years and the operator, Horizontal Drilling, says the site is outdated and needs a makeover. It wants to clean up abandoned wells, consolidate its processing capabilities and drill up to 77 new wells over the next several decades on bluffs just south of the Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County.
Horizontal Drilling spokesman Don Schmitz told the commission it’s prepared to comply with all of the regulator’s guidelines, including allowing local tribal representatives to be involved in the oilfield’s “consolidation.”
“There’s 23 special conditions in [the permit], they are very, very comprehensive and this type of oil consolidation project is exactly what was envisioned by the Legislature when they drafted the Coastal Act,” Schmitz said. “We are consolidating it down into a very small footprint.”
The application calls for oil operations to be consolidated into two designated areas on the 401-acre property. The operators hope to drill slantwise through the bedrock foundation into porous shale and strike more oil. Hydraulic fracking is not currently being used at the Banning Ranch location, although critics warn it could be used in the future.
The oilfield sits on top of the Newport-Inglewood fault line and is near 26 other fault zones. According to the commission’s report, the Newport-Inglewood fault line is capable of a generating a magnitude 7.4 earthquake. The report acknowledges that Horizontal Drilling’s coastal development permit application does not discuss the hazards of a potential earthquake.
“The applicant’s coastal development permit application entirely fails to address or even mention the need for earthquake preparedness, damage mitigation and protections for workers or residents,” the 326-page commission report states.
Oil was first discovered on the coastal site in the 1920s, but production has steadily declined over the last few decades. The operator says the plan will make the oilfield safer by updating technology and closing down old, unproductive wells.
Friday’s tryst was the latest round in a drawn-out fight between developers, environmentalists and regulators over what to do with the 401-acre property on the Pacific Ocean.
Environmentalists and Orange County residents hold the bluffs in high regard, proud of the site’s designation as one of the last undeveloped coastal properties in the region. Banning Ranch is home to protected wildlife, including the burrowing owl and the San Diego fairy shrimp.
In September, the commission rebuffed a housing development planned for Banning Ranch after nearly 12 hours of spirited public comment. The vote was closely watched and regarded as the first significant commission decision following its controversial move to fire popular executive director Charles Lester earlier this year.
The developer quickly responded with a $490 million lawsuit against the commission for holding a “borderline sham” hearing on the development project.
Terry Welsh, president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy and a Sierra Club member, testified Friday that the project could damage the protected southern tarplant. Welsh said Banning Ranch is one of the few remaining places the endangered species is found, and questioned the commission staff’s decision to reduce the buffer zone around the plant from the typical 50 feet to 25 feet.
Welsh said the Banning Ranch Conservancy met with alternate commissioner Nidia Garcia-Erceg before the vote. Garcia-Erceg was the lone dissenting vote.
Critics also warned the project could decimate important tribal cultural sites that have existed on Banning Ranch for centuries.
Charles Sepulveda, native scholar and professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, submitted a letter to the commission urging it to deny the permit. His letter was read to the commission by an audience member.
“According to archaeologists, native populations lived here for several thousand years, up until the 19th century when they were displaced by the mission system,” Sepulveda’s letter stated. “It continues to be sacred Indian land, notwithstanding several archaeological sites having already been disturbed.”
Nonetheless, commissioners said they were essentially powerless to prevent the oil operator from continuing its project on the private property.
“If I had my druthers, if this were my choice, I’d want this land preserved in its entirety for eternity,” Commissioner Mary Luevano said reluctantly. “I’m not sure we can do that.”
Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders acknowledged that while she believes Californians need to “get off fossil fuels,” she applauded commission staff for reducing the number of proposed new oil wells from 340 to 77. But like Luevano, she agreed the commission doesn’t have the authority to slow oil drilling on the beloved coastal site.
“While I wish we had the authority to stop all oil drilling, I don’t think that we do have that authority,” Sanders said before voting in favor of the permit.
In a phone interview, Welsh said he wasn’t surprised by the commission’s decision and that the “real work left” is to stop the housing proposal that he expects to resurface in March. He hopes that the developer’s hefty lawsuit doesn’t impact the commission’s potential future decisions on the matter.
“It’s quite likely that the developer comes back in March with a new application, but it would be nice to see the lawsuit struck down and thrown out before then,” Welsh said.
Until then, Welsh said environmentalists will continue to fight to save the wetlands from being trampled not just by oil wells, but urban development.
“We’re going to keep at it, and keep trying to save Banning Ranch’s open space,” Welsh said. “We remain resolute, ready and rested to fight for years if necessary.”