Defending Ventura County's General Plan
We are gearing up to defend Ventura County's 2040 General Plan in 2021. What we know right now is that seven notices of intent to sue have been filed in Ventura County Superior Court, most from oil industry interests. The County could be facing multiple lawsuits that question the validity of the new General Plan which has the most stringent oil & gas regulations in the nation. It's a precedent-setting document for a clean energy future - but it could be dead out of the gate if we don't defend it adequately. We are working with law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to devise a strategy of how CFROG will best defend our community's hard-won victories in the General Plan.
A Permit To Pollute
Ventura County has a permitting problem. Thousands of oil & gas permits issued in the 1950's and 1960's give oil companies carte blanche rights to operate however they want on their drill sites - be it fracking, re-drilling without environmental review, or operating without clean-up oversight. Legal arguments proposed by the County state that these "vested rights" can't be taken away. In other words, we're just supposed to let the oil industry do whatever it wants, whenever it wants - so long as they got their permits during a time when no substantial environmental regulations existed. During a time where the climate crisis is upon us, and the Central Coast's oil resources our dwindling - exemptions like this should not exist, and cannot continue. We will be campaigning for an end to these environment- and health-damaging "antiquated conditional use permits" and demanding that Ventura County bring all oil and gas permits up to modern standards.
Abandoned Well Discovery Project
The Central Coast has a long history as an oil-producing region, which fracked its first wells in the 1950s using a mixture of sand and diesel fuel. This history of extreme and persistent extraction has left Ventura County with over 4000 plugged and abandoned wells, and over 2000 idle wells. “Plugged and abandoned” is a term used to describe wells that have been safely and successfully closed, meaning that they should no longer pose any danger to the land, air, and water. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many wells labeled as safely “plugged and abandoned” present significant environmental health risks.
Idle and abandoned oil & gas wells are dangerous. Volatile gasses and toxic fluids can migrate to the surface and spread through the soil and groundwater, contaminating both. Abandoned wells frequently leak methane, an ultra-potent greenhouse gas which, when concentrated, can become a source for deadly explosions. The longer a well is idle, the more dangerous it can become. Additionally, in Ventura County, some of the wells listed as “plugged” prior to 1960 were plugged using mud instead of cement. Long term, all of these wells – abandoned, idle, and inadequately plugged – are environmental disasters. Some already happening, some just waiting to happen.
CFROG is busy in research mode, investigating CalGEM's database of abandoned and idle oil & gas wells. For a long time, we've suspected that many "plugged" wells still pose significant environmental health threats from both methane and seepage. The question is - how many? We are starting a project that will investigate old records for each of the 4000+ abandoned wells in Ventura County, and cross-check with available documents to see which wells have got years - or even decades! - with a reported leak or containment issue that has not been resolved. Statewide, CalGEM oversees the retiring of abandoned and idle wells and collects assessment fees for that purpose. However, it is widely known that funds available are not enough to properly abandon all of California’s idle and poorly abandoned wells - a clean up cost estimated at $9.2 billion, or $68,000 per well. Some companies have contributed as little as $80 per well owned to the state’s clean-up fund. Local governments are responsible for land permits, and must take ultimate responsibility for ensuring the land is restored to its natural state. An important first step in using CalGEM’s clean-up funds responsibly is to make sure we have all the data needed on well conditions to create a list of problematic idle and abandoned wells, ranked by level of urgency.
CFROG supports Chair Phil White's motion to have the Ventura County Planning Commission initiate a study of abandoned oil & gas wells. You can read that letter here.
Huge thanks to Advisory Board member Vickie Peters, who made all the maps! The study concept will be revisited by the Planning Commission in November 2020.
Beyond Fracking: Preventing Extreme Extraction
CFROG has already been in one lengthy public battle over cyclic steam injection, a dirty and dangerous technique where high-pressure steam is pumped deep underground to liquefy Oxnard’s otherwise inaccessible “tar sands” oil. When CFROG exposed the multiple permit violations by the oil operator, and demonstrated that petroleum-related gasses were showing up in the Fox Canyon Aquifer, our efforts - together with community activism - resulted in a 2-year moratorium on cyclic steam injection in Ventura County. That moratorium expires in December 2020, and there is no legal possibility for extension. So once again, oil companies will be seeking to use cyclic steam injection to squeeze every last drop of petroleum out of the ground. Cyclic steam injection is primarily done in Oxnard, a community that is already overburdened with environmental pollution. Oil production from cyclic steam injection in the Oxnard Plain has historically resulted in multiple oil operator bankruptcies, major spills, polluted groundwater, and large clean up and well abandonment costs passed on to the taxpayer. Spills of Diluent - a toxic solvent which is used to dilute the thick tar for transport to market - have resulted in benzene, toluene, and petroleum seeping onto rich farm soil as well as groundwater. Evidence of these spills remains at detectable levels today. Ventura County is the eleventh largest agricultural producer in the United States, and Oxnard is the world’s leading producer of strawberries. We are advocating for a county-wide ban on cyclic steam injection and other forms of extreme extraction techniques - that if enacted, would set a precedent for local governments to take action where California is unable or unwilling to do so. While it is likely to be a multi-year process, CFROG aims for legislation that will leave Oxnard’s remaining oil resources in the ground. We must protect both our prime farmland, recognized as some of the best in the world, as well as the nearly half a million people who call Oxnard their home.
All-Electric Reach Codes
Every three years, counties and cities have the opportunity to adopt new Building Standards Codes (also known as Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations). When a building code is more advanced than what is required by the state, it becomes known as a “reach code”. The All-Electric Reach Code prohibits natural gas use in new buildings. Reach Codes simultaneously save energy and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Each new gas line we build is an environmental, health, and financial liability. Gas rates keep rising, and gas lines are costly to maintain. Gas lines leak methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Indoor gas use pollutes our homes and businesses, with serious health impacts including childhood asthma. Buildings emit 24% of California’s GHGs – but they don’t have to! The best way to phase out natural gas is to prevent new lines from being built.
CFROG sent a letter of support to the Ojai City Council in favor of adopting an All-Electric "Reach" Building Codes. Happily, the Council voted in favor of developing an ordinance. Ultimately, these new codes promise to move Ojai away from natural gas and install all-electric appliances in new construction. Ojai (and Oxnard) are on 100% renewable electricity sources already - so all-electric building codes really cement the transition to clean energy there! Ojai is the first of what we hope are many Central Coast cities to adopt all-electric Reach Codes. As of today, 38 California cities have adopted All-Electric Reach Codes.
Climate Action Plans
We are collaborating with activists city-by-city on encouraging the adoption of robust Climate Action Plans. This month, we had a meeting with the Citizens Climate Lobby and strategized work happening in Thousand Oaks.
Fracking the Wilderness
CFROG was dismayed to learn of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) recent proposal to further open public lands in Central California to fracking and other oil and gas development. More than 1.2 million acres of federal land, including areas that the federal government just owns the below-surface mineral rights to, could be leased to oil companies.This plan ends a 2013 moratorium and many of the proposed leases are near pristine wilderness areas like Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.
According to a map produced by Los Padres ForestWatch, the proposal covers many areas in Ventura County including a land preserve behind the Thacher School in Ojai, another small area near the Ojai Valley Inn, large areas near the Hopper Mountain wildlife refuge above Fillmore, land on Red Mountain above Lake Casitas, areas near Canada Larga, a parcel above the Rincon, land above Happy Camp Canyon Regional Park in Moorpark and both Naval bases. The mineral rights issue is particularly problematic because it gives the BLM the right to lease land on private property to oil companies because it owns the subsurface rights. Environmental groups and officials and agencies in California have filed lawsuits to stop the plan citing lack of consideration for public health and environmental degradation.California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has protested the decision. Read his comment letter. CFROG will continue to monitor this proposal, protest under every means possible and provide updates as they become available.
Community unites against Petrochem proposal
CFROG has learned that our appeal of a decision by the Ventura County Planning Director to approve another polluting use for the old Petrochem property north of Ventura will not be necessary. An Indiana-based firm, Real Estate Recovery Capital, purchased the property from the original owner and will not go forward with the vehicle and contractor storage yard approved for the site. The new owner has indicated further cleanup is necessary and that the property will be resold.
Read more about this ill-conceived project proposed for the gateway to the Ojai Valley.
No new tar sands
A recent U.S. Geological Survey report found petroleum-related gases in two Oxnard groundwater wells sited directly over cyclic steam oil recovery operations, and possibly a third. An operator was proposing 79 new tar sands wells near multiple water wells between Oxnard and Camarillo, but the county shut them down for mass violations of their permits.
Oil and Homes Don't Mix
There are 1,400 low-income residents living in Oxnard Pacific Mobile Estates in Oxnard with homes as close as 1,665 feet to a drill pad, with another nearby. This oilfield was proposed to be expanded to four new oil wells, an oil and gas processing facility, and a flare to burn off gas produced at the project. The production facility was being built to separate oil, water and gas for a minimum of 20 permitted oil wells, causing more air pollution and truck traffic in the area.
CFROG and Food & Water Watch appealed the approval of this project and on Sept. 24, 2019 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted for a resolution of denial.
The community turned out to speak against this expanded oilfield. Clearly, the citizens of Oxnard are tired of being surrounded by unhealthy industrial activities. Read more here.
Keep this toxic facility shut down
The Santa Clara Waste Water facility in Santa Paula is in a league of its own locally for its documented dangerous practices. The site of a 2014 explosion caused by the mishandling of chemicals which left several first responders permanently unable to work, it now could reopen under a new name.
VENTURA COUNTY FRACKING & ACIDIZING
- GOAL: Ensuring environmental and land use laws apply to all oil drilling in Ventura County
- COALITION: Environmental Defense Center, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (“CAUSE”), Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (“CFROG”), Sierra Club, Los Padres Chapter, and Ventura Audubon Society
People across the south central coast have for years been voicing concerns about hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the process by which sand, water, and an unknown cocktail of chemicals is forced down an oil well to fracture rock, and acidizing where hydrochloric and hydroflouric acids are injected to dissolve rock and access oil. So Ventura updated its oil application process to require new drilling proposals involving fracking or acidizing to provide detailed information, including the source and amount of freshwater used, and disposal methods for frac flowback and other wastewater.
However, an EDC investigation found that between 2012-2014, the County unlawfully exempted 95% of all oil wells – more than 400 wells – from discretionary review or application of modern County ordinances, including the new fracking and acidizing rules.
The County allowed this unregulated drilling because the wells operate under old, “antiquated” permits that were in many cases first issued in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s! Due to an opinion issued by County Counsel finding that oil companies have “vested rights,” the County has neglected to apply environmental or land use laws to regulate these wells, which are in both densely populated urban areas and largely undisturbed natural areas.
This County policy has in essence permitted oil companies to drill as many wells as they want, wherever they want, in perpetuity, without additional discretionary review.
Climate action in General Plan Update
It is critical that Ventura County gets it right in the climate elements of its General Plan Update, now newly released. Working for the health of the planet is CFROG's core mission and we believe the effects of climate change will impact Ventura County profoundly — from the wildfires which have raged out of control to coastal infrastructure now threatened by sea-level rise.
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