Judge Halts Plans To Drill Near California National Park

A nesting California condor in Pinnacles National Park. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT
A nesting California condor in Pinnacles National Park. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT

A California judge has struck down plans for oil drilling near Pinnacles National Park, saying county officials failed to account for the numerous environmental risks of the drilling project when they approved it.

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills ruled Monday that San Benito County did not adequately consider the risk of spills, water, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from the project, which planned on drilling 15 pilot wells near the national park but could have ended up drilling many more after the pilot project was complete. The ruling was for a case put forth by the Center for Biological Diversity in July 2013, after the San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved the 15-well drilling project planned for a site about nine miles from Pinnacles National Park.

“This project could turn this beautiful area into a massive new oil field,” Deborah Sivas, who represented the Center for Biological Diversity in the lawsuit, said in a statement.

The county also did not consider the risks the drilling project posed to the critically endangered California condor, a species that became extinct in the wild in 1987 but, with the work of conservationists, is slowly being brought back. Pinnacles National Park is home to about 24 of the roughly 160 California condors living in the wild today. According to the ruling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had recorded California condors drinking at a water trough within three miles of the proposed drilling site in 2012. And in 2010, a California condor laid an egg inside the Pinnacle National Park boundaries for the first time in more than a century.

The project would have used cyclic steam stimulation, a process also known as “huff and puff,” in order to extract oil. The process injects high-pressure steam underground, creating cracks in the earth from which oil can escape. It’s the process used at an Alberta tar sands site that’s been leaking oil since last year. It’s also a highly water-intensive method: the proposed project, according to the judge’s ruling, would have required more than 17.5 million gallons of fresh water. In an already drought-ridden state, this heavy demand for fresh water caused several residents near the proposed drilling site to worry about how the project would affect their freshwater supplies.

“I have a water shortage to begin with, and my concern is the water, what’s going to happen to our ground levels when they start taking 17 million gallons of water,” one said, according to the judge’s ruling.

“Now, if they’re going to get water out of the ground there that could very well drain our water. We run two thousand head of stockyard cattle. What do we have left?” said another.

If the company in charge of the proposed drilling, Citadel Exploration Inc., wants to apply for a new permit for the project, a full Environmental Impact Report will first have to be completed.