For those of you who were not able to attend the meeting on Feb 5th:
Citizen Participation in South Monterey County,
By Susan Raycraft
On Saturday, February 5, Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, County Planning Staff, BLM staff, a Western States Petroleum Association representative, citizen groups, and Planning Commissioner Chair Jay Brown, addressed a public meeting at Lockwood’s Community Center at Harden Square, responding to citizen concerns about the expanding oil and gas development in the Third District of Monterey County. The use of chemically injected deep formation hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” of the Monterey Shale in Lockwood, Jolon, Old Jolon, San Antonio, Bryson-Hesperia, San Antonio Lake, and Hames Valley, was just one of many issues on which the Supervisor Salinas and Planning Director Mike Novo focused on in leading the discussion.
The citizens and public officials gathered are not opposed to drilling, per se; they are concerned about new methods which may be unregulated and potentially destructive over the long term. What citizens really want is for their elected officials to be good managers of the public good, and participating in meetings like Saturday’s is one way to help them do that. The approximately 75 attendees asked questions for over an hour, following presentations by the county and BLM Field Office Manager, Rick Cooper. Mr. Cooper revealed the location of pending lease sales in Hames and Lockwood and provided detailed information about owner-oil company relations on “split estate” parcels (those where one owner controls surface rights and the federal government controls mineral rights).
BLM is planning a lease sale of approximately 2600 acres in the Hames Valley, where Venoco has already been issued permits for exploratory wells using the chemically injected hydraulic fracking technique, a process that is distinct from the steam injected shallow well drilling common in San Ardo. Though BLM has never inquired of its lessees what kind of drilling is planned, as the wells are to be over 8,000 feet deep, they will of necessity use the deep well chemical injected fracking technology. In the past, the wells in Monterey County, especially in San Ardo, have all been what are considered shallow wells, utilizing conventional methods.
There was a great deal of discussion as to whose responsibility protecting water below the surface around any of the new wells actually is, and both agencies represented are working on clarification. Citizen concerns that the exemption of natural gas and oil drilling chemical injection fracking from provisions of the Federal Clean Water act and Safe Water Drinking Act, and hence oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency by the Bush-Cheney Energy Act of 2005 (called the Halliburton loophole), insures that no federal or state agency is authorized to monitor the water quality effects of chemical pressure fracking. The attending agencies conceded the situation was confused though efforts are being made to work around the loopholes to protect local water quality. Testing of local wellwater prior to expansion of fracking techniques was also of concern. At this point, the county is certain that at least one chemically injected fracking well is being drilled by Venoco, and nine more are on appeal by local groups in an appeal that will be heard in late March before the Planning Commission.
Many sides of the complex issues were discussed, including the reliance of Americans on oil to fuel their cars and homes, and the political expediency of reducing U.S. reliance back on imported oil. Concerns about use of large quantities of ground water depleting local aquifers, unknown mixtures of chemicals being injected deep into the shale underlying agriculture lands adjacent to our rivers and lakes, and how contaminated water is recycled and disposed of were all expressed. Unfortunately, a representative of Fort Hunter Liggett was not present and so how such drilling may or may not be done on Base lands was not clarified, though citizen groups are pursuing a clarification this month from the Base. At this time, all oil drilling is prohibited on the Monterey District of the US Forest Service.
A representative of major oil companies presented the industry viewpoint that fracking is safe for our type of deep shale, which differs from some of the areas of Colorado, Wyoming, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania experiencing groundwater contamination from the process, as documented in the film, “Gasland.” All conceded that it is in the public interest to switch from reliance on foreign oil to other forms of fossil fuel, to enhance CAFE (fuel efficiency standards by an act of Congress) and to move toward use of more natural gas rather than coal or nuclear power. However, whether such gas can be withdrawn from the formations in our area safely without depleting or contaminating ground water aquifers, based on the very limited available science so far disclosed to the public, is unclear. A citizen asked why there wasn’t more attention to cleaner, non carbon releasing alternative energy sources, like solar and wind power, and to conservation, and to her question, Planner Novo responded that the county has some permits pending for alternative energy development.
All speakers answered the many questions that came from the floor in a round-robin that balanced opinion from industry experts and representatives and the planning staff and BLM. Everyone left with a clearer understanding of both the issues and the processes in place (or not) to address them. There are a number of undecided issues about regulation, such as whether pending BLM land leased for wells will include County permitting of well operations. The BLM Environmental Assessment of their upcoming sale, which is of parcels right above and upgradient from San Antonio Reservoir, should be available around April 1st. The BLM representative made it clear that Congressional action could be taken to protect at least parts of southern County from any future BLM related oil and gas development (such as the Pinnacles, lands near the Forest Service Monterey District, and Fort Hunter Liggett).
As meeting Chair Susan Raycraft expressed in her Introduction, “It is only through thoughtful consideration of options that we can prepare for responsible action.” Many people, including the spokespersons for the county, BLM and the oil industry thanked the meeting’s organizers, a loose coalition of concerned local people linked mainly by email who came together as HOLD (Halt Oil Lease Drilling) to organize the gathering and create a forum for education and discussion on issues that affect us all. The group now plans to seek citizen involvement in formation of a South Monterey County Citizen’s Planning Association, modeled after the every effective CPA in Santa Barbara County. The goal will be to broaden public participation in ALL issues affecting the public.
CAPTION FOR PHOTO: The serious looks on the faces of BLM Hollister Field Office Mgr. Rick Cooper, Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, Planning Director Mike Novo, Planning Commissioner Jay Brown, HOLD spokesperson Steve Craig, Dave Smyser of Western States Petroleum Association, and Panel Moderator Fred Kenyon (standing) suggest the gravity of the issues, and the depth of the discussion held at Saturday’s meeting in Lockwood.