The Los Padres National Forest is considered by many to be the quintessential California landscape. From Big Sur’s moss-covered ancient oaks, foggy peaks, and silent redwoods to golden forever foothills, poppy fields, and pinyon pines north of Los Angeles, this is the heart of natural California and the homeland of the ancient, endangered condor. And it is terribly threatened by short-sighted schemes for new industrial development.
Los Padres National Forest. Photo © Cynthia Elkins
Oil and Gas Drilling on the Los Padres National Forest
Under the direction of the Bush administration, the Los Padres National Forest approved a new oil- and gas-leasing decision in July 2005. The decision opens 52,075 acres of the forest in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to new drilling and allows more than 4,200 acres of infrastructure on the national forest as well as untold additional acres of disturbance on and near the forest. New drilling leases would severely harm wildlife, including the California condor and several other endangered species, in the event surface drilling proceeds near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Both areas are critical to the survival and recovery of the condor. The decision also allows surface drilling immediately adjacent to the Dick Smith, Chumash and Sespe wilderness areas and slant drilling beneath the Wild and Scenic Sespe Creek and Wild and Scenic-eligible Piru Creek and Santa Paula Creek.
Terrible Track Record
The Los Padres National Forest currently produces 700,000 barrels of oil a year under 22 leases covering 14,618 acres. The majority of the oil is produced at a field near Fillmore, about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.
Sespe oil field. Photo © Los Padres Forest Watch
Existing operations have already caused far too much harm to the forest and nearby protected areas. On January 29, 2007 a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum spilled at least 200 gallons of oil and 2,100 gallons of wastewater into Tar Creek, a tributary of federally designated Wild and Scenic Sespe Creek and along the southern boundary of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Several sources have confirmed that up to four times that amount was spilled, and a final report is expected soon following completion of an investigation.
Nearly a dozen other significant spills by this and other companies have occurred in this area in the past three years, including a massive spill of 8,400 gallons of salt water and an “unknown” amount of oil into the Four Forks Creek, another tributary of Sespe Creek, and an additional spill in the nearby Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge—an area closed to public entry and set aside to protect the California condor.
Oil and Nature Don’t Mix
A significant portion of potential oil and gas development areas are located within remote and pristine national forest lands. Designated wilderness and roadless areas are where nature can run its course unmolested by people. These areas provide essential habitat for a host of vulnerable plants and animals like the endangered California condor, recreational opportunities for people, a scenic backdrop for visitors – the largest single recreation use on the forest is "viewing scenery" – and generate ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, natural pest control, and watershed protection.
Yet 74 percent of the 140,000-acre area estimated to have high potential for occurrence of oil and gas is within official “Inventoried Roadless Areas.” Ninety-three percent of one of the most important oil and gas areas, the “South Cuyama,” lies within an inventoried roadless area. Congress is currently considering the possibility of protecting these roadless areas as federal wilderness, but new oil and gas leases will sabotage this evaluation.
Oil and gas development areas also contain a wide variety of American Indian archeological sites, including permanent villages and temporary habitation sites, cemeteries, rock art, places of religious significance, and resource procurement and processing locations. Much of the area is unexplored archeologically, creating the need for careful baseline surveys prior to any development. Because of the area's intermediate position between California's central coast and central valley cultural zones and the lack of previous surveys, it is very possible that unique and unexpected site types could be damaged and lost by oil and gas development.
Five Days of Oil or a Sustainable Nature Economy
The remaining cache of oil beneath the forest is estimated to be approximately 90 million barrels BOE (barrels of oil equivalent). This represents only one percent of the oil and only .06 of one percent of the gas thought to underlie federal lands in the United States, including Alaska. Translated another way, it’s equal to about five days of our nation’s oil supply.
According to a 2004 report by the Forest Service and Michigan State University, the Los Padres is one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, attracting millions of visitors from San Francisco to Los Angeles and beyond — worth far more to the country, in the long term, than five days of oil. The study revealed forest visitors spend an average of $43 each day they visit. With nearly two million visitors per year, the Los Padres is a significant boon to the local economy.
A final compelling fact is that the United States contains less than five percent of the world's population but consumes 40 percent of its oil and 23 percent of its gas. Clearly, our nation's energy problems can be resolved most effectively by increasing conservation and fuel-efficiency standards and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
A Better Future
The Center for Biological Diversity is working closely with Los Padres ForestWatch and Defenders of Wildlife to protect the Los Padres National Forest from the misguided energy policies of the Bush administration. With our members’ help we will continue to actively opposing any new oil and gas drilling on the Los Padres National Forest and will press the Forest Service to adopt stricter guidelines for managing existing leases throughout southern California.
Los Padres National Forest. Photo © Cynthia Elkins