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Lawsuit Targets San Benito County's Approval of 15 Oil Wells in Endangered Condor Habitat
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit on July 10 challenging San Benito County’s approval of a major new oil development in the Salinas Valley watershed. The 15 new oil wells approved by the county last month will use cyclic steam injection, a dangerous and polluting form of oil extraction that targets heavy crude. The new wells would be located in an area used by California condors, which are critically endangered, along with other wildlife. The lawsuit was filed in Monterey County Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act. Photo: A California Condor in Pinnacles National Park.
Dangerous New Oil Development Challenged in California Court
Lawsuit Targets San Benito County's Approval of 15 Oil Wells in Endangered Condors' Habitat
SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit on July 10 challenging San Benito County’s approval of a major new oil development in the Salinas Valley watershed. The 15 new oil wells approved by the county last month will use cyclic steam injection, a dangerous and polluting form of oil extraction that targets heavy crude. The new wells would be located in an area used by California condors, which are critically endangered, along with other wildlife. The lawsuit was filed in Monterey County Superior Court under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“It makes no sense to fast-track dirty and dangerous new oil projects when it’s painfully obvious we have to shift to cleaner energy sources to fight climate change,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “We brought this lawsuit to make sure San Benito County considers all the environmental dangers before turning this beautiful area into yet another oilfield — and in the process hurting condors, one of the country’s most famous endangered species success stories.”
The Indian Wells oil-development project will take place on a remote, little-developed 688-acre site in the Bitterwater area of southeastern San Benito County, about nine miles south of Pinnacles National Park. The project site sits atop the Bitterwater groundwater basin and drains to the Salinas River, an important source of drinking and irrigation water for some of the world’s most productive farmland.
The site is also important foraging habitat for the California condor, a critically imperiled species with a population of only about 430 individuals. Condors from both the Big Sur population and the Pinnacles National Monument population have been photographed on the project site drinking water from a trough. The condors photographed on the site are believed to constitute 10 percent of the total population of the species.
Cyclic steam injection — also known as “huff-and-puff” — is an oil-extraction technique applied to heavy-oil reservoirs to boost production. During the process, the operator injects steam at very high temperature and pressure into the well. The well is then shut in, allowing the steam to heat up the surrounding formation, which thins the heavy oil so it can more easily flow toward, through, and out of the well. Cyclic steam injection creates some of the harshest possible well conditions. The process can cause well failure, shifting and buckling of the ground, and unexpected eruptions of fluid and steam from the ground. In 2011 an oilfield worker was killed in Kern County in an accident related to cyclic steam production.
Cyclic steaming requires large amounts of water, and the county approval allows use of more than 17 million gallons (54 acre feet), leaving less water for agriculture and other uses. The oil development may also contaminate groundwater through spills of oil, chemicals, or the large volumes of toxic wastewater that are produced.
Despite the massive environmental impact of the new oil wells, the county approved the project after conducting an abbreviated environmental study, called a “negative declaration” under the state’s Environmental Quality Act. But the law requires preparation of a full environmental review, called an “environmental impact report,” for any project that may have a substantial impact on the environment, as well as the adoption of all feasible measures to avoid or mitigate those harms.
“CEQA is our environmental safety net,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, who represents the Center in the lawsuit. “Following CEQA’s common-sense review measures will make California a healthier and safer place for everyone.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
SAVING THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR
A cherished icon of the West, the prehistoric-looking California condor remains one of the world’s most endangered species. North America’s largest avian narrowly escaped extinction in the mid-1980s when the last 22 wild California condors became star participants in a captive-breeding program. Thanks to those efforts, more than 140 condors flew freely in California and Arizona by 2007. But recovery is still in jeopardy: More than 40 percent of all released condors have died or been returned to captivity.
Poisoning by ingestion of lead shot — scavenged along with carcasses left behind by hunters — is one of the most widespread and preventable causes of condor deaths. The Center’s Get the Lead Out Campaign early on asked California and Arizona to require the use of nonlead ammunition within the condor’s range, resulting in California’s historic Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, as well as a settlement with California’s wildlife agencies eliminating lead ammunition for depredation hunting (the hunting of “nuisance” animals). When the EPA denied our petition to regulate toxic lead in hunting ammo and fishing tackle nationwide — for the sake of condors and many other animals — we sued in November 2010. In May 2012, we and allies officially notified the Forest Service of our intent to sue for the agency's failure to protect condors in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest from toxic lead ammunition left behind from hunting activities.
We’re also campaigning to reduce habitat loss, leading a broad coalition to preserve Tejon Ranch (a biodiversity hotspot containing vital habitat for the condor) as a national or state park — even after other conservation groups signed a compromise with the ranch’s owners that would allow development in condor critical habitat. We’ve fought to block a series of sprawling developments that would forever change Tejon, including suing Kern County for approving the disastrous megadevelopment Tejon Mountain Village and moving against a proposal to grant the ranch’s owners a “license to kill” condors to make development easier. When two condors were found shot with lead bullets in central California in spring 2009, we launched an in-depth investigation and announced a $40,000 reward to help bring the shooter or shooters to justice.
We opposed the Bush administration’s plans to expand oil and gas drilling in Los Padres National Forest, including surface drilling next to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. We submitted a comprehensive conservation plan for Southern California’s four national forests to protect condors, and we’re challenging the Forest Service’s management plans for these forests, which would harm condor habitat. Our influence on past management plans for these forests has resulted in the inclusion of protective measures such as using nontoxic antifreeze in vehicles and retrofitting power lines to prevent condor electrocutions.
Gymnogyps californianus Young California condor ready for flight, spring 2000.