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Agencies Cancel Plan to Frack Oil Wells, Build Pipelines in Los Padres National Forest

by Center for Biological Diversity
VENTURA COUNTY, Calif., April 15, 2024 — Two federal agencies have confirmed the cancellation of applications for permits proposed a decade ago to drill and frack eight new wells on federal public land in Los Padres National Forest. The announcement, made April 3, comes just weeks after California officials proposed a statewide ban on this extremely dangerous fossil fuel extraction technique.
Together, the two actions signal the end of the toxic era of fracking in the Sespe Oil Field. Fracking has occurred here for decades unbeknownst to the public, but when the polluting practice was uncovered through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests in 2012, a pause in fracking occurred amidst public opposition and an outpouring of scientific studies showing the dangers posed to human health and the environment.

The eight applications refocused the spotlight on the Sespe and the public health and environmental risks posed by fracking.

“This announcement closes the chapter on a toxic and dangerous legacy of fracking in the Sespe,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, one of the organizations that mobilized residents to oppose the fracking plan. “While fossil fuel extraction here continues to pose grave dangers to our public lands, communities and climate, today we celebrate this important step forward as we continue the transition to clean energy.”

“I’m relieved that these long-pending drilling and fracking applications have been cancelled, averting a major threat to condors and steelhead,” said Lisa Belenky, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Condors have suffered from oil wells and pipelines in this area in the past and steelhead critical habitat in Sespe Creek is downstream from the oil field, so this is a win for biodiversity. We can’t allow expansion of fracking and other oil and gas extraction on our public lands. Ending fossil fuel production is critical to reducing greenhouse gas pollution and supporting real climate solutions.”

Seneca Resources — a Texas-based oil company — filed the original drilling applications with the Bureau of Land Management in 2013, seeking permission to frack eight new wells in the Sespe Creek watershed along with the construction of nearly two miles of new pipelines, a 12,600-gallon tank, and other industrial facilities in this remote area upstream of the town of Fillmore. Carbon California, a Colorado-based company, eventually took over operation of the Sespe Oil Field.

From the beginning, the plan faced widespread opposition, but the U.S. Forest Service anticipated that the wells would be approved within months and joined with the BLM to prepare an Environmental Assessment. An EA is a concise, less-detailed analysis often reserved for projects without significant environmental impacts. Thousands of local residents submitted letters and signed petitions urging the agencies to prepare a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement or to reject the wells outright.

Hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — is a process whereby water, sand and thousands of gallons of chemical additives are injected underground to break apart rock formations and stimulate the extraction of oil and gas. The technique has come under increasing scrutiny from scientists, regulators and the public due to concerns about groundwater contamination, surface water pollution, water consumption and public health. Hundreds of fracking chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, and several are known to cause cancer.

Located approximately four miles north of Fillmore in Ventura County, the Sespe Oil Field is one of the oldest oil fields in California. The lands in and around the oil field provide important habitat for endangered California condors. That includes the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sespe Wilderness. The headwaters of several mountain streams originate in the Sespe Oil Field before emptying into Sespe Creek, which is formally designated critical habitat for endangered southern steelhead and is classified as an “Area of High Ecological Significance” by the U.S. Forest Service.

“The protection of this sensitive environment from the dangers of fracking is a step in the right direction. The residents of Fillmore rely on the Sespe Creek watershed to recharge their groundwater supply, and it is now receiving the protection it deserves,” said Haley Ehlers, executive director at Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas (CFROG). “Agencies must continue the progress by protecting our public lands and communities from all types of extreme oil extraction.”

California has not approved a fracking permit since 2021. That same year, Gov. Newsom announced a plan to stop issuing fracking permits within three years and phase out fossil fuel extraction by 2045. In tune with the governor’s plan, California oil regulators earlier this year unveiled their official proposal to permanently ban fracking throughout the state.

The proposed regulatory text reads: “The [California Geologic Energy Management] Division, including the supervisor and district deputies, will not approve applications for permits to conduct well stimulation treatments.” The regulatory change is expected to be finalized in the coming months.

“Most of the fracking in the Sespe Oil Field occurred decades ago when the American public was still unaware that such a practice even existed,” said Alasdair Coyne, conservation director of Keep Sespe Wild. “It’s good to see that our state regulators are now acting to protect our water supplies from the toxic pollution that is an ever-present risk with fracking operations.”

Los Padres ForestWatch is a local nonprofit organization working to protect Los Padres National Forest and other public lands along California’s central coast.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Keep Sespe Wild is a is a nonprofit watershed conservation organization founded in 1988 to preserve Sespe Creek, one of Southern California's last free-flowing rivers.

Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas (CFROG) is a grassroots nonprofit working to shape the transition away from fossil fuels to a carbon-free economy in Ventura County.
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