by Kimberly Rivers
Last week the small town of Lytton in British Columbia had record breaking temperatures of 121 degrees. The area flooded as local snow packs rapidly melted, overrunning local rivers and streams, and then a lightning storm caused a fire that decimated the town. Two people died. It might sound like fiction concocted in Hollywood, except that it’s real. It’s climate change.
Governments at all levels are grappling with their role in combating and adapting to the changing climate. People are calling for changes on many fronts, with tension between those pushing for strong, effective climate action and those who seem to be rooted in extending the status quo of a fossil fuel-based economy.
Meanwhile, local oil and gas companies are working to maintain profits and reassure investors — some of whom may be looking at renewable investment options. Even as Ventura County and some local cities have passed “climate emergency” resolutions, they have been faced with lawsuits when attempting to make tangible changes to policy or pass ordinances that turn those resolutions into actions.
How do local governments “think globally but act locally” when grappling with the waning giant of the fossil fuel economy, a keystone of the founding of Ventura County and a cornerstone still of the local economy? And could there be a role for the fossil fuel industry in responding to a rapidly warming planet and rising carbon levels?
These questions lack fast or easy answers, and some aren’t waiting for local government to act. Private residents, businesses, school districts and colleges are moving ahead, even as rebates and incentives may be watered down.
County shortens oil drilling permit horizon
Signaling a new precedent in permitting for the local oil and gas sector, Ventura County has reduced the standard length of oil and gas extraction Conditional Use Permits from over 20 years, down to 10.
Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) are used to govern oil extraction as well as things like wedding venues, exotic animal keepers, horse boarding facilities and other uses of properties that are different from the original intended use. The CUP process allows the county the discretion to either approve or deny the use and, if approved, to place conditions on that use to protect public health, safety and the environment.
On June 22 the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, in a split 3-2 vote, bucked staff recommendations for a 20-year horizon for the Agnew oil and gas lease, five miles east of Ojai, and instead approved a 10-year permit for the ongoing operation.
Supervisors Kelly Long, Bob Huber and Matt LaVere voted to grant the permit, with Linda Parks and Carmen Ramirez voting no, expressing a desire for stronger climate action and protections for the public related to potential future costs of plugging idle wells.
The 10-year permit horizon is unique in the county among CUPs that govern oil extraction; 25 to 35 years is more typical for active permits that have expiration dates.
While the operations on site will not change, the vote signals a shift.
“Carbon has trimmed this [project] back considerably,” said Neal Maguire, an attorney with Ferguson Case Orr Paterson of Ventura, representing Carbon California, the oil company currently operating the Agnew lease. According to the company’s website, Carbon California is managed by the publicly traded Carbon Energy Corporation, headquartered in Denver.
Maguire said the requested operations at Agnew are now at the “baseline” used in the environmental review that was conducted.
In 2013, when Carbon California first applied to renew this permit, it sought to drill more wells. But legal action from Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) forced the county to perform a more thorough environmental review of the project and compelled the company to reduce its project to the status quo, albeit incorporating some activity that violated conditions of the previous permit. The permit now allows three existing oil and gas wells, a methane flare for burning off excess methane gas, and a total number of 22 trucks (oil tanker and maintenance) each week to use Koenigstein Road to access the oil lease site.
The original CUP governing use of the site was granted in 1976 and did not allow regular use of the flare or the road. The flare was only allowed for emergencies; a pipeline was supposed to be used to move fluids from the site. Trucks accessing the site were to use an alternate route to reach Highway 150. When the permit was renewed in 1983, the flare was still not authorized by the county.
“But previous operators worked with the [Air Pollution Control District],” to obtain a permit for the flare, explained Jane Farkas, director of land and regulator affairs with Carbon California, to the supervisors on June 22.
The flare was installed in 1996 by then-operator Mirada Petroleum, a Santa Paula-based company, which sold a portion of the Agnew lease (amongs several others) to Carbon California in 2017. While the oil operator was able to obtain a permit for the flare from the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), that permit was granted in violation of the CUP.
In 2018 officials at the APCD admitted the agency had erroneously granted a permit for a flare at the Bentley lease, another oil extraction site, off of Creek Road in Ojai, without confirming the governing CUP allowed full-time use of the flare.
Both leases demonstrate a pattern of the APCD not properly vetting permit requirements prior to granting use of flares. Officials at the agency previously told the supervisors they are now checking all CUPs to ensure APCD permitting aligns with county permit conditions.
Carbon California operated the flare on the Agnew lease in complete violation of the county CUP from 1996 until June 22, 2021 (wells were idled during permit renewal process). This year’s permit approval abates 25 years of permit violations.
Idle, abandoned wells a growing problem
Another unique feature of the new CUP for the Agnew lease is Condition 21. Proposed by staff, the condition puts Carbon California on the hook for any authorized increases in required surety amounts for oil and gas operators the supervisors approve in the next 24 months. County planning staff have been directed to bring an ordinance doing just that back before the end of this year.
This condition came about as a result of Linda Parks, who last year asked about the number of idle wells Carbon California currently has in the county and about the surety amounts currently required by the county from oil companies. Parks pointed out that in the event a company ever filed for bankruptcy or otherwise abandons its idle wells, taxpayers would be stuck with properly plugging the wells. A surety bond is essentially money that can be claimed by the county to recover losses if an operator goes out of business or fails to meet its contractual obligations.
Jeffrey Barnes from Ventura County Counsel explained that current county “practice” is to obtain a $10,000 surety bond from each operator, although county ordinances allow the amount to be collected either “per operation” or “per well.”
Carbon California reports that it has 157 idle wells in the county. According to the California Department of Conservation, Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGem), the agency that oversees oil and gas extraction in the state, an idle well is defined as “a well that has not been used for two years or more and has not yet been properly plugged and abandoned (sealed and closed).”
Ventura County Planning Director Dave Ward explained that while the state also requires surety amounts from oil operators, it oversees below-ground operations at oil extraction sites. The county requirement, governed by the Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance, covers the “county process” for “above-ground equipment.”
Ventura County has primary authority over determining where and when oil extraction takes place in the county through the CUP process. CUPs granted since the 1970s have expiration dates, which provide the county — and the public — a window to review the permit to ensure it is still an appropriate use of that land.
So far, Ventura County has only denied one oil and gas permit renewal. In March of 2020, the supervisors unanimously voted against a CUP renewal and nullified the CUP held by Peak Operators at a lease on the Oxnard Plain, citing violations of its permit.
Idle wells that become abandoned are a statewide issue, poised to cause taxpayers a headache to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
A study released earlier this year, completed at the request of CalGem, found that just under $500 million would be needed to address the issue. In the May budget revision, Governor Gavin Newsom allocated $200 million. That is for the state’s responsibility; it’s unclear what responsibility local governments might have. This problem is coming like a tidal wave on the horizon, and it’s something municipalities haven’t had to grapple with before.
Public input sought on future of Rincon Island
A case in point regarding idle oil wells is Rincon Island. California taxpayers will have paid the nearly $60 million bill to properly plug the 27 onshore and 50 offshore wells that were abandoned when the operator, Greka Oil and Gas, filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
The first phase, plugging the wells, is complete and now the State Lands Commission (SLC) is seeking public input on the next phase to determine what will become of the island.
An online public meeting was held on June 23 to provide information on options for the island and to receive public input.
Phase 2 includes developing the plan for decommissioning the island, the onshore facilities and the causeway connecting the island to the shore. This phase also includes a feasibility study and other documentation required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The phase began in March, and is expected to take six months.
The state is considering options that involve repurposing the site for another use, and a full or partial removal plan.
The SLC reports it will be conducting “targeted outreach to environmental justice organizations” and will be contacting local tribal governments. A draft feasibility study for the potential options will be released for public comment, then the SLC will make a final determination.
Issues that will be incorporated in the environmental impact assessment conducted are likely to include aesthetic impacts, biological resources, noise, greenhouse gas emissions, commercial fishing and sea level rise issues.
Details and documents are available online at www.slc.ca.gov/oil-and-gas/rincon/. Questions and comments can be directed to : Nate Dozier, 562.590.5237, Nate.Dozier@slc.ca.gov.
Residents self-evacuated due to gas venting in W. Ventura
(editorial note: online version updated/corrected after print deadline when publicly available information was updated.)
In a written statement Ventura Fire Chief David Endava confirmed that West Ventura residents chose to self-evacuate last week due to a “strong gas smell” in the area.
At around 1:00 in the afternoon on Friday, July 3 the Ventura Fire Department began receiving dozens of 911 calls about the odor of gas in the area. At least one restaurant in the area shut down, thinking the gas was coming from their site. Concerned residents chose to leave the area. Crews determined the source was the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas) gas compressor facility on Olive Street across from E.P. Foster Elementary School.
Endava said the event was called a “normal purge operation” by SoCal Gas and the city was determining whether this was going to be a regular event and if so, that the Fire Department and community be notified. As of press deadline there was no new information available.
Residents in West Ventura have been organizing to fight the expansion of the gas compressor facility, saying it causes air pollution and would never be built so close to homes today and that expanding gas facilities doesn’t make sense in light of climate change.
The newly formed Westside Clean Air Coalition held a vigil each evening the week of June 21 at the site to monitor the construction taking place in preparation for the expansion SoCal Gas says is needed to push more gas north to Goleta due to declining gas production in that area.
CSUCI goes solar
While the county struggles to address issues surrounding climate change, California State University, Channel Islands, is taking matters into its own hands.
CSUCI is installing a solar array that will provide more power than the campus uses during peak use hours, earning a savings of $8 million over 30 years.
“The array will make CSUCI one of the largest producers of green energy in the California State University system and will result in significant cost savings for our campus,” said Erika D. Beck, Ph.D., president of CSUCI.
The array comes from solar energy company REC Solar, based in San Luis Obispo. REC Solar will pay all upfront costs, including installation. Overall the array will provide 68% of the power needs on campus annually.
“CSUCI has been working diligently toward having a solar array that will provide clean, renewable energy for the campus and greatly reduce costs for electricity,” said Tom Hunt, CSUCI’s interim assistant vice president of facilities services.
CSUCI will receive credit for the excess power fed back to Southern California Edison. The array is being installed in a field near the front entrance of the campus off of Lewis Road and is slated to be completed by the end of this summer.
CSUCI is joined in the solar movement by the campuses at Ventura, Moorpark and Oxnard Colleges who have added solar panels totalling eight megawatts.
Saticoy’s Tesla Megapacks powering Oxnard
Oxnard is also eyeing alternatives to fossil fuels.
On June 29, officials and residents celebrated the completion of the Saticoy Battery Storage Project, which will help stabilize the grid and provide backup power to the city of Oxnard.
“Saying no to a gas peaker plant and yes to battery-stored energy has provided our community with a nonpolluting power plant, increased our tax base, and created good jobs and ultimately better health for the people,” said Carmen Ramirez, Ventura County Supervisor (Dist. 5) “This project is truly a testament to Oxnard’s determination and resilience to modernize and better our community.”
142 Tesla Megapacks create the 100 megawatt/400 megawatt-hour storage system which will store power during non-peak hours and then discharge power to match supply and demand during peak use.
The project took just nine months to complete. According to Arevon Energy, the company that installed theTesla Megapacks, the site will provide enough backup power for the entire city of Oxnard for four hours, or all of Ventura County for 30 minutes.
The batteries are charged with electricity supplied by Southern California Edison (SCE) in a 20-year term and sale agreement. Strata Clean Energy initiated the concept for the project.
The project is anticipated to provide $11 million in property taxes to Ventura County over the next 35 years and was built with a project labor agreement with the Tri-Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.