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Drilling blind 

The Arroyo Grande Oil Field, 3 miles northeast of Pismo Beach and near the Price Canyon neighborhood, produces tar sands oil, some of the dirtiest petroleum in the world as measured by carbon emissions. A majority of the wells are within 3,200 feet of homes, and they are about to be joined by more.

Oil drilling permits, like the cartons of milk in your refrigerator, have expiration dates for a reason. The last time an environmental review was conducted for a permit that approved more drilling in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field was 2004. That review ignored greenhouse gas emissions, to name one deficiency.

This did not trouble SLO County planners in 2015 when they granted an extension to that expired permit based on that cursory environmental review, then 10 years old. Planners granted permission to the Sentinel Peak Resources oil company to drill 31 new wells and increase production from 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day with no additional review, despite the fact that the previous permit for the decade-old plan had expired. The oil company explained that they needed the extension on their 2005 permit because they had been required to "update certain boundaries," without mentioning the reason why: It was discovered that state officials had allowed oil companies to drill wells into federally protected aquifers around the state, including the one next to the Arroyo Grande field.

In another event that occurred after 2005, state regulators found that underground injection of oil drilling wastewater, as planned for those new Arroyo Grande wells, routinely fractures rock formations, potentially creating underground pathways into aquifers for pollutants.

This is why permits are not supposed to be forever.

This did not trouble the SLO County Board of Supervisors last October when they heard the Center for Biological Diversity's appeal of Sentinel Peak's extended permit. Instead of admitting that substantial changes had occurred and new information had been identified that was not known at the time the project was to be undertaken, requiring major revision of the previous final environmental impact report (EIR), they dismissed the appeal on a 4 to 1 vote and gave Sentinel Peak three more years of expanding fossil fuel extraction privileges. (Again, that previous EIR was the one that ignored greenhouse gas emissions.)

That's why, on Jan. 25, AgEnergy Systems, Center for Biological Diversity, Ecologistics, ECOSLO, Let's Green CA!, Morro Coast Audubon Society, North County Watch, the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, SLO Climate Coalition, and Sunrise San Luis Obispo sent a letter to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) asking them to reject any request for permits to drill new wells in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field unless and until adequate environmental review is conducted under the California Environmental Quality Act. We are asking CalGEM to stop rubber-stamping drilling permits without adequate analysis or public participation and put an end to continued oil extraction that goes beyond the scope of existing environmental impact reports and permits. If CalGEM fails to demand full compliance with our state's bedrock law protecting the environment and the community's right to know, it would create a dangerous precedent for others looking to take advantage of loopholes to extend their drilling operations.

The review that CalGEM needs to conduct should incorporate the findings of the 2019 Oil Change International study "Drilling Towards Disaster: Why U.S. Oil and Gas Expansion is incompatible with Climate Limits," which found that between 2018 and 2050, U.S. drilling into oil and gas reserves could unlock 120 billion metric tons of new carbon pollution, equivalent to the lifetime CO2 emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants. If not curtailed, U.S. oil and gas expansion will impede the rest of the world's ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production. The study's key recommendations for policymakers included ensuring a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy, planning for the phase-out of existing fossil fuel projects in a way that prioritizes environmental justice, and prohibiting new leases or permits for fossil fuel exploration, production, and infrastructure.

Another study worth incorporating in the environmental review CalGem needs to conduct before approving the plans of Sentinel Peak Resources for the Arroyo Grande Oil Field was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology last December. Oregon State University researchers found that living in proximity to oil and gas drilling increases pregnancy complications, including high blood pressure, hypertension, eclampsia, and premature birth.

There will never be a shortage of new ways to render the Central Coast more vulnerable to fossil-fueled calamity. And because the majority of our county supervisors don't get it or don't care, the state mustdo the job our supervisors failed to do at the Arroyo Grande Oil Field. Δ

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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