Oil In Los Padres
The Bush administration's push for domestic energy sources could lead to oil drilling in south Monterey County.
Thursday, April 11, 2002
As debate rages on Capitol Hill about oil drilling in Alaska''s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Forest Service is exploring the potential for oil and gas in Monterey County''s back yard.
Next week, the public comment period closes for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Los Padres National Forest''s oil and gas plan. Although some lands in the forest, such as coastal Big Sur, are off limits, the report identifies several areas with high potential for drilling.
The Los Padres covers two separate swaths of land. The southern half lies near San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. The northern half contains the Ventana Wilderness and stretches through the Santa Lucia Mountains from Big Sur over to King City.
One of the potential drilling areas in the Los Padres is a patch in south Monterey County known as the Monroe Swell. Located about eight miles west of King City, it''s the geologic extension of formerly producing oilfields-there were 15 to 20 wells in the area outside the Forest boundary back in the 1960s-though today it is empty rolling grassland.
There''s an estimated 92 million barrels of oil under the wilderness-rich Los Padres. (For comparison, the ANWR is thought to contain 11 billion barrels.) There are already productive oil fields just south of Monterey County.
The idea that the Monroe Swell and corners of the Los Padres could be drilled for oil has drawn heavy fire.
Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, as well as Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, have already protested. The four lawmakers wrote a letter dated March 18 to Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service, urging the agency not to drill and to "emphasize vigorous regulation and management of those operations in existence." The letter was submitted as comment to the draft environmental report.
They wrote: "The opening of these spectacular, unspoiled lands to oil and gas drilling threatens one of California''s most pristine and wild places. Oil and gas development offer no benefit to the biological health of the forest and can cause irreparable damage to the fragile habitat."
Al Hess, manager of Los Padres'' oil and gas leasing program, says several hundred letters have come into the Forest Service. Most oppose, he says.
One concerned entity is the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, located above the east end of Carmel Valley. The center sent the Forest Service a letter dated March 12 opposing the "commercial use of this precious national treasure.
"The recent proposal to open the Los Padres for oil extraction flies in the face of reason," the letter says.
The monks at the Zen center were finishing up a 90-day period of silence last week and were not able to comment for this article. Victoria Austin, president of the San Francisco Zen Center, which oversees Tassajara, says that although the nearest potential drilling would be about 10 miles away, the matter cannot be ignored.
"It doesn''t directly affect Tassajara, but the way it threatens Tassajara is [that] Tassajara is in the wilderness, and it depends on the wilderness," Austin says. "It wouldn''t be so much of an issue, but last year Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center were part of a campaign to stop the bombing range [at Fort Hunter-Liggett]. Just having finished that, to have this come up, it showed us that the wilderness Tassajara is in the middle of is still vulnerable."
Still, you need a car with gas in the tank to get to Tassajara, and these Buddhists are not extremists.
"I think no one at Tassajara is against the U.S. having the natural resources it needs to go on. But all this disturbance of the roadless area would give [the nation] five to 10 days of fuel," Austin says. "It''s not enough to help us but enough to hurt the forest."
Al Hess says any likely oil drilling would happen in the bottom half of the forest, south of Ojai in Ventura County. He says there''s an estimated 90 million barrels in the areas designated for "high potential." The Forest Service would likely place restrictions on any drilling permits, he says. The "preferred alternative" under the current analysis identifies 22 million attainable barrels.
In 2000, California oil wells produced 307 million barrels of crude, or about 842,000 barrels a day, according to state figures. That only supplies half of what Californians consume daily.
Although pressure to tap domestic oil supplies is high following the Bush administration mandates (which spawned the ANWR scuffle), Hess says interest in Monterey County oil is low.
"We haven''t had any direct industry interest in quite a while," he says. "It''s no issue up there as far as we''re concerned. There are no wells, no development proposed for anywhere around Monterey County."
He also says there is no connection between the Bush administration drilling mandate and the Los Padres study: "It''s coincidental."
But the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which recently succeeded in prying loose documents about the Bush administration''s National Energy Policy, isn''t buying that explanation.
The new policy, it found, was heavily influenced-if not ghostwritten- by corporate energy interests.
Johanna Wald is the director of the group''s land program and works out of San Francisco. She says the Los Padres report was no coincidence.
"It''s part and parcel of the Bush administration''s push," Wald says. "What we are seeing in California as well as in the Rocky Mountains is the administration view that no place is too special to drill."
Although Wald concedes that the amount of oil in the Los Padres is relatively minuscule, "This administration is driving the decision-making process. We''re looking at these proposals because this administration wants the proposals to be looked at," she says. "I''m told by sources that the reason why they''re moving ahead with this is because the administration told them to."