Enviros challenge Calif. drilling project, citing possible impacts to water, condors
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit against a central California county over its approval of an oil-drilling project that the environmental group says could have big effects on endangered condors and drinking and irrigation water in the Salinas Valley.
At issue is the San Benito County Board of Supervisors' approval last month of 15 wells on a 688-acre site about 9 miles south of Pinnacles National Park.
The CBD lawsuit filed yesterday in Monterey County Superior Court in Monterey, Calif., says the county and its Board of Supervisors violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by approving the drilling project without first conducting a more in-depth analysis of the proposal and its potential impacts to the Bitterwater groundwater basin that drains into the Salinas River, which in turn supports some of the world's most productive farmland.
The lawsuit also claims the area in question contains important foraging habitat for endangered California condors, which have been photographed on the proposed project site drinking water from a trough, according to CBD.
The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic is part of the legal team representing CBD in the lawsuit against the Indian Wells pilot program proposed by Newport Beach, Calif.-based Citadel Exploration Inc., which is not named as a defendant.
The lawsuit specifically questions the proposed use of cyclic steam injection to target the heavy crude oil that sits only 350 feet below the surface. The process involves injecting steam at very high temperature and pressure into the well, heating the surrounding formation and thinning the heavy oil so it can be more easily brought to the surface.
CBD says the process can cause well failure, as well as shifting and buckling of the ground that can eventually contaminate groundwater. The targeted oil resource is above the groundwater formation, posing "both environmental and human health risks," according to the 29-page complaint.
Yet despite these concerns, San Benito County approved the project after conducting what CBD describes as an "abbreviated environmental study," instead of a full environmental impact report required by state law for any project that may have a substantial impact, according to the lawsuit.
"It makes no sense to fast-track dirty and dangerous new oil projects when it's painfully obvious we have to shift to cleaner energy sources to fight climate change," said Kassie Siegel, director of CBD's Climate Law Institute. "We brought this lawsuit to make sure San Benito County considers all the environmental dangers before turning this beautiful area into yet another oil field -- and in the process hurting condors, one of the country's most famous endangered species success stories."
Matthew Granger, the counsel for San Benito County in Hollister, Calif., did not respond to a request for comment.
But Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association in Sacramento, scoffed at the notion that cyclic steam injection is a danger to water sources.
Hull said the cyclic steam injection is "relatively common and a very well-understood process that has been going on for decades" in the state.
"We don't think it's dangerous; we don't think there's evidence that it has been a risk or posed a risk to groundwater or any other water source," he said.
But CBD said in the complaint that San Benito County failed in its "clear legal duties" under CEQA to properly review the drilling project, and it is asking the court to set aside that approval until a more in-depth environmental analysis is conducted.
"CEQA is our environmental safety net," said Deborah Sivas, director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. "Following CEQA's common-sense review measures will make California a healthier and safer place for everyone."
Copyright © 2013 E&E Publishing, LLC.
This article originally appeared here.
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