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Wading into the tar pit 

Will SLO County replicate Kern County's mistake?

So, 2016 is on track to be the year in which San Luis Obispo County makes the most fateful choice of its existence.

It won’t be a single choice made at one moment. It will be a choice embodied in a series of related decisions:

• Whether to allow Phillips 66 to bring the world’s dirtiest oil here—on mile-long trains that have shown a penchant to derail, spill, and explode—and subject residents to the environmental and health impacts that come with the refining of that dirty oil.

• Whether to allow Freeport McMoRan to drill 31 new oil wells on a 10-year-old permit without requiring an updated environmental review.

• Whether to hand Freeport McMoRan another permit to drill another 450 wells in the Arroyo Grande field, a tenfold increase in current production.

And so on.

Across the country, Big Oil is drilling wells, laying pipe, and building rail and port terminals so they will be ready when the price of oil recovers from its present swoon. They are playing the long game—if you define “long game” as being positioned to break all the carbon-cutting promises made in the Paris climate agreement and turn up the heat to commence the final frying of the planet because the profit margins look right.

Kern County wed its fortunes to Big Oil a hundred years ago. Their union has produced some of the dirtiest air and highest poverty rates in the country. Last November, Kern renewed its vows in dramatic fashion: A county ordinance, sponsored by the oil industry and passed by the Kern County Board of Supervisors, allows the suspension of environmental review for oil and gas drilling and eliminates the requirement to notify the public of any impending oil project, including well pads, roads, pipelines, fracking, and the disposal of toxic wastewater via injection into aquifers.

The ordinance is scheduled to remain in effect for the next 20 years, which means that the 70,000-plus oil and gas wells expected to be drilled between now and 2035 in Kern County have been “fast tracked” to zip through the process and right past local residents.

Actually, that’s understating the case. There will be no process to zip through—just frictionless permitting, with no oversight or review. Which is why a vice president with the Western States Petroleum Association said, “We’re exceptionally pleased with not only the county staff’s effort that they put into the development of this project, but now, as well, the board’s unanimous approval.”

Which is also why, on Dec. 10, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued Kern County, in coordination with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Like every kid who grew up in Los Angeles, I was fascinated by the La Brea Tar Pits. The primordial death trap and fossil factory at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax was long ago turned into a monument to the doomed prehistoric creatures that ventured too close to the ooze, unaware of the fate that awaited them as they waded into what looked like a pond. Life-size statues of flailing mastodons breaking the surface of the oil-slicked water greet the city’s daily commuters as they inch their way down Wilshire, windows firmly rolled up against the tar pits’ petroleum reek. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

At the Nov. 12 SLO County Planning Commission hearing on the permit extension for those 31 new oil wells that Freeport wants to drill—three days after the Kern County supervisors went all in on unregulated oil and gas drilling—the commissioners turned aside the vocal dismay of the neighbors of the Arroyo Grande oil field and gave Freeport a thumbs-up, noting there was “no appetite” on the commission to require them to get a new permit to replace their expired one, a requirement that would include a new environmental review of the potential impacts that we know about now but were not contemplated in 2005.

The Center for Biological Diversity has appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of that permit extension to the Board of Supervisors. We’ll see if the idea of an updated environmental review causes the supervisors to likewise lose their appetite.

If the supervisors decide that they, too, have timid tummies, we’ll have a clearer view of what the future has in store for SLO unless we start getting vocal about what we do and do not want to see in that future. A review-free three-year extension on an expired drilling permit is not the same as the 20-year apocalyptic free-for-all upon which our eastern neighbor is determined to embark … but it’s in the ballpark.

Also in that ballpark is a mastodon dipping its toe into the pond at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax and thinking about going just a little farther. 

Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor

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