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Goleta, Calif., Challenges Coastal Drilling

SANTA BARBARA (CN) - California's approval of drilling and refining at an aging coastal gas and oil plant will endanger public health and the environment, the city of Goleta claims in court.

Goleta, pop. 31,000, just west of Santa Barbara, sued the California State Lands Commission on Jan. 15 in Santa Barbara County Court.

It claims the commission approved the State Lease PRC 421 project and certified its environmental impact report on Dec. 17, 2014, in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Private oil and gas exploration company Venoco is named as a real party in interest.

State Lease PRC 421 includes 68.48 acres of tidal and underwater lands and is part of the Ellwood Oil Field, which parallels the county coastline. The lease was issued in 1929 and changed hands several times until the commission reassigned it to Venoco in 1997, according to the 27-page complaint.

Though it originally included nine wells, all but Well 421-2 were plugged and abandoned by 1993.

"The Lease 421 wells are located on side-by-side piers partially within the city and in the Pacific Ocean surf zone, in the midst of sensitive ecological habitat and significant recreational amenities," the complaint states. "The wells were shut down in 1994 following an onshore oil spill on the nearby Sandpiper Golf Course, near the coastal bluffs. Since that time, the wells and piers have been idle, and have deteriorated significantly due to their location in the harsh intertidal surf zone along Haskell's Beach."

Venoco wants to return the aging Lease PRC 421 wells to production, and to process the crude oil at the Ellwood Onshore Facility, which is in Goleta. "The almost 50-year-old EOF is located in an area zoned for recreation, and has been a legal non-conforming use since 1991," the complaint states.

Goleta, once a largely agricultural region known for its lemons, has become a center for research and aerospace engineering facilities and high-tech firms.

The State Lands Commission, established in 1938, is responsible for creating and renewing oil and gas leases on state lands, among other things.

Goleta claims that processing crude oil from Lease 421 wells at the Ellwood Onshore Facility violates its coastal use plan, its general plan and its zoning ordinances, and exposes citizens to hazards associated with oil and gas drilling. These include exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, inhaling toxic vapors, air pollution, drinking water contamination, and increased risks of cancer and birth defects.

Also, investigations by the Santa Barbara Air Quality Control District discovered a methane gas leak, and "poor condition of the wells' infrastructure and the risk of an oil release to the surrounding sensitive marine environment," according to the complaint.

Venoco submitted an application to recommission the lease in May 2004. Since the land at issue was under the jurisdiction of several entities, the City of Goleta, the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission and Santa Barbara County created a joint review panel in September 2006 to collaborate on the environmental impact report.

Though the State Lands Commission was the lead agency for preparing the report, Goleta says, it suspended preparations in December 2007 due to major changes in the project and never prepared a final study.

After the Commission agreed to restart the process in January 2013, a draft environmental impact report was circulated for public comment in October that year and the final report was issued in November 2014.

City representatives and several environmental groups objected to the final impact report, calling it "legally inadequate." The city asked the State Lands Commission to withhold consideration of the project until Goleta determined whether to terminate Ellwood Onshore Facility's nonconforming use status, but the commission denied Goleta's request.

Goleta claims the commission shirked its duty to protect the environment and the public health when it approved the Lease 421 project and the final environmental impact report in December.

Among other things, the impact report's project description does not include enough detail about key components to enable environmental analysis, such as a 25-foot pipeline along the coastal bluffs and the process of ultimately decommissioning and abandoning the lease, according to the complaint.

It also uses outdated data to establish a baseline and postpones project impact analysis by stating that current data on site conditions will be collected as part of the project's mitigation measures, which undermines the public's ability to know how the project will affect the environment before it is approved, Goleta claims.

The impact report does not include current conditions of geological resources and defers further study on conditions at the piers, subsurface conditions, soil evaluation and data on wind and wave impacts to the project's structural components, to be done later as mitigation measures, the city says.

Though the impact report acknowledged that contaminated soil and groundwater and other hazardous materials could be at the construction site from past drilling operations, it failed to compare these conditions with expected project impacts and instead relegated such studies to mitigation measures to be carried out in early project phases, the complaint states.

Analysis of water quality, marine life, estuary and wetland habitats, traffic and noise impacts are similarly plagued with outdated information, lack of sufficient scientific studies to support conclusions and failure to establish accurate baseline conditions, according to the complaint.

Goleta claims that the report replaces in-depth study of threats to endangered marine species, animal migration habits, destruction of animal habitat and "permanent ecological changes" with analysis of "general impacts," such as oil spills and noise levels.

Furthermore, the impact report does not evaluate increases in toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions or health risks associated with exposure to these chemicals, and does not discuss physical impacts from storms and sea level rise though the project is in the surf zone, the complaint adds.

The project objective prevents the report from presenting a reasonable range of alternatives, Goleta claims, such as bringing the lease onshore elsewhere so it will not rely on the Ellwood Facility for processing crude; and drilling from existing platforms rather than reviving Well 421-2, which would reduce impacts to wetlands and ease safety concerns from wave activity damaging the piers.

Goleta claims that allowing the project to move forward despite these deficiencies will expose its citizens to unnecessary health risks and irreparably harm the environment.

Commission spokesperson Sherri Pemberton told Courthouse News that the commission declined to comment as it is still reviewing the lawsuit.

Goleta asks the court to set aside project approvals and to vacate the environmental impact report until the commission issues a new study that complies with CEQA.

It also wants an injunction preventing Venoco from carrying out any part of the project until it fulfills all of the CEQA requirements.

The city is represented by Margaret M. Sohagi of Los Angeles and City Attorney Tim W. Giles.

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