CFROG OpEd Exchange over Modelo Canyon

Recently, CFROG engaged in a bit of an Op Ed volley with the Ventura County Planning Department. CFROG Advisory Board member wrote a guest column. Planning Department Chair Kim Prillhart responded. Then CFROG President John Brooks wrote a guest column in response to that.

Michael J Shapiro: Crisis of confidence in county planning agency.

Michael J. Shapiro, of Ojai, is on the board of the Los Padres Forest Watch (LPFW) and the advisory board of Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG).

Jun 1, 2014

The Ventura County Planning Division says an old oil field north of Piru can be reopened without harming the environment even though numerous groups and individuals recently disputed that claim.Now pending is the division’s decision of whether to issue a permit to drill or call for a full environmental impact report (EIR). Brian Baca, a county planning manager, has rejected calls for a full EIR evaluating possible impacts on the wells, tanks, pipelines and other structures from a rupture of the nearby San Cayetano earthquake fault.Baca states that such a rupture is “highly speculative” and “not foreseeable” — that the proposed reopened oil wells would be one mile from where the fault reaches the surface and, therefore, unlikely to suffer damage from any tremors. His colleague states that he’s “unaware of any widespread damage to wells due to earthquake effects upon existing wells.” Really?
How can they ignore highly regarded seismic and geologic experts from the National Institute of Technology and Standards, FEMA and the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) when making such preposterous claims? It’s simply not credible that they’re unaware of the well known as “Ojai 36” — a plugged well in Upper Ojai not far from the Summit Elementary School and farther away from the San Cayetano fault than the proposed Modelo Canyon wells: “Ojai 36” suffered a catastrophic rupture from a 3.2 tremor, spilling thousands of gallons of toxic and radioactive materials for three months. The “minor” quake sheared the well-casing right off “Ojai 36” — underground! Baca states that he doesn’t like “speculation” but the USGS is not known for speculation and it reports that the San Cayetano Fault is a “very active fault” with the potential for a 7.2 magnitude temblor. Other respected experts report a very rapid “reverse-slip rate” of the eastern San Cayetano fault, suggesting it will produce either very large or very frequent earthquakes — or both.

Several respected environmental organizations also presented why they have grave concerns that new oil drilling in the Modelo Canyon site might endanger the nearby condor nesting, roosting and feeding grounds. A successful partnership between federal and state governments and several nonprofits has spent decades and millions rehabilitating and bringing the endangered condor species back from the brink of extinction. It’s, therefore, entirely responsible that an EIR be conducted to study any potential impacts on drilling so near to the condor habitat and feeding grounds and explore how to mitigate impacts if they’re found to exist.
We insist upon an EIR that covers all research and data instead of ignoring the truth about the genuine risks of renewed drilling activity in the Model Canyon area in such proximity to the San Cayetano fault and the endangered condors.Have they intentionally omitted the facts to enable the oil firm to save thousands by not having to fund an EIR? Is that really an example of “good government?”

It is our hope that Planning Director Kimberly Prillhart will use her so-called “broad powers of discretion” to respond to the overwhelming evidence and order a full EIR, overruling her subordinates’ desire to rush to judgment without looking at all the facts and risks.

Kim L. Prillhart: ‘Substantial evidence' missing

Aug 9, 2014

Re: Michael J. Shapiro's June 1 guest column, "Crisis of confidence in county planning agency":I wanted to comment on a few critical issues that Mr. Shapiro raised. First, it is important to understand that the permit in question is for the drilling of two exploratory oil wells in the Modelo area of the Piru oil field. The permit was granted for a five-year period and, to be clear, does not allow hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." As required by law, an environmental analysis was completed and a detailed environmental document, a mitigated negative declaration, was prepared. Mr. Shapiro states an environmental impact report (EIR) is required as "numerous groups and individuals" believe that to be the case. While the county appreciates the concerns raised by Mr. Shapiro and others, controversy is not the standard under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for which an EIR can be required. On the contrary, CEQA states "the existence of public controversy over the environmental effects of a project will not require preparation of an EIR if there is no substantial evidence before the agency that the project may have a significant effect on the environment."

Thus, it is not the number of people who agree or disagree on the impacts that determines the need for an EIR, it is the presence of substantial evidence than an impact would occur that could not be mitigated to a level that is less than significant.The term "substantial evidence" is critical in this discussion. It is defined in Section 15064(f)(5) of the guidelines for the implementation CEQA as follows: "Argument, speculation, unsubstantiated opinion or narrative, or evidence that is clearly inaccurate or erroneous, or evidence that is not credible, shall not constitute substantial evidence. Substantial evidence shall include facts, reasonable assumptions based on facts, and expert opinion supported by facts." Both the written comments on the mitigated negative declaration and public comments received at the planning hearing were fully addressed by staff. Each of these issues was evaluated for substantial evidence of an impact as reflected in the documentation incorporated into the mitigated negative declaration. There must be a rational standard of the application of the term "substantial evidence" or the county would be exposed to potential legal liability from proponents or opponents of a project. In our professional opinion, no substantial evidence was presented or identified that a potentially significant and unmitigated impact would occur in any of these issue areas. Again, while reasonable people may disagree, the professional opinion of the planning staff is that there is no substantial evidence that the short-term exploratory drilling and operation of two oil wells would cause a significant impact on the environment. The county Planning Division encourages public participation in the planning process and, in my opinion, this project illustrates that the process is working. Comments received from the public resulted in improvements in the environmental document. As the process allows, my decision to approve the permit was appealed to the county Planning Commission and it is possible that its decision could then be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. In any event, Mr. Shapiro and others will be given an opportunity to again make the case that there is "substantial evidence" that the project may have a significant impact on the environment, and that the proposed project should not be approved under the county's applicable zoning regulations. Land-use applications often require complex analysis and can result in controversial decisions. However, no matter the number of speakers who testify, the law requires that the type of environmental document prepared be based upon substantial evidence of impacts than cannot be mitigated.

If any member of the public would like to discuss the county's land-use permitting process or has questions on a specific land-use case, please call us or visit our website www.ventura.org/rma/planning.

Kim L. Prillhart is Ventura County Planning director.

John Brooks: Time to study risks of new drilling

Aug 16, 2014
Re: Kim Prillhart's Aug. 9 guest column, "‘Substantial evidence' missing":
In her reply to environmentalist Michael Shapiro's June 1 guest column, Prillhart, the county's planning director, completely misses the point of what is truly "controversial" about restarting the old Modelo Canyon oil field north of Piru, within a wing flap of a California condor nest.

The controversy stems from her department's refusal to order the applicant, Dos Cuadros Offshore Resources, LLC, to conduct a full environmental impact report of the possible risks.
Shapiro presented just some of the possible risks that the community raised: danger to condors; pollution of the watershed and streams from earthquake-generated leaks; greenhouse-gas emissions from flaring; unsecured abandoned wells; earthquakes caused by injection wells; and the potential widespread use of fracking and acidizing to increase flow from numerous wells that will be drilled if the test wells find oil.

He also presented dramatic evidence that a minor earthquake in 2006 on an active fault caused a well casing to break near an Ojai elementary school and the underground spill couldn't be stopped for three months.
Prillhart claims that Shapiro, Citizens For Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG) and others did not present "substantial evidence" that those impacts will occur. He did, we did, but it was not even necessary.
That is not what the California Environmental Quality Act requires. Numerous court decisions say all that is needed to compel an environmental impact report is a "fair argument" that a proposed project may have a significant effect on the environment.
The most recent judicial ruling in San Benito County states: "California courts routinely describe the fair argument test as a low threshold requirement for the initial preparation for an EIR."

Meanwhile, our Planning Division repeatedly puts up roadblocks and demands "substantial evidence" or "proof " that harm will take place. That is not what the law was designed to do. It is time instead to use the environmental review to resolve doubts over possible risks. In the case of Friends of Old Trees v. Department of Forestry 1997, the court ruled: "The evidence supporting fair argument should not be equated with overwhelming or overpowering evidence." There is a crisis in planning in Ventura County. With this application to reopen an oil field — shut down 25 years ago — experts can take a look at an area that is currently a wildlife corridor and a roosting and potential feeding area for a growing condor population and for the first time in this canyon's history, it can be scientifically studied before roads are widened, wells drilled and a helipad is constructed.
Back in the old days, there were as many as 63 wells in Modelo Canyon. Some were spewing methane and other gases into the air and leaking oil into the creek, which feeds into Piru Creek and then the Santa Clara River. No one wants that to happen again but you can't allow drilling to begin if the risks are not fully addressed.
I

n fact, it is against the law.
J

ohn Brooks, of Oak View, is president of Citizens For Responsible Oil and Gas, a local nonprofit organization.


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