Did California break law by OKing new SLO County oil wells? Environmental group sues state

California broke the law when it approved six new oil wells in rural Arroyo Grande without an up-to-date environmental review, a new lawsuit filed against the state claims.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court by nonprofit organization Center for Biological Diversity and Stanford Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, alleges the California Geologic Energy Management Division approved six new steam injection wells at the Arroyo Grande oil field in late 2022 and early 2023 without conducting a proper environmental review.

CalGEM is the state agency responsible for regulating oil and gas drilling in the state.

The lawsuit says the last adequate environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act for the Arroyo Grande site — located along Price Canyon Road southwest of San Luis Obispo — was completed by San Luis Obispo County in 2004.

Relying on the old environmental review to approve new oil wells is illegal, Center for Biological Diversity lead attorney Liz Jones said.

“State regulators are neglecting their duty to protect the public from these dangerous oil and gas projects,” Jones said in a news release on Thursday. “Putting new wells near homes, beaches and dwindling habitat for wildlife is the exact opposite of public safety. It’s not only outrageous but (also) illegal for CalGEM to approve these wells without a scrap of new environmental review.”

The 2004 environmental review by the county allowed the site owner at that time, Freeport McMoRan, to build 95 oil production wells, 30 steam-injection wells and three steam generators, as well as new and modified well pads at the oil field by 2015.

In October 2021, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission gave the site’s new owner, Sentinel Peak Resources, a time extension of three years to construct 31 of those wells Freeport McMoRan had not been able to construct before the 2015 time limit.

The Center for Biological Diversity argued in 2021 against the planning commission granting Sentinel Peak Resources the time extension, instead encouraging the government to conduct further environmental review. The nonprofit said at the time that far more has been revealed since 2004 about the harms of oil drilling on the planet.

Those same claims are the basis for the lawsuit filed Thursday.

Here, oil well “18M R” pumps at the Arroyo Grande oil field.
Here, oil well “18M R” pumps at the Arroyo Grande oil field.

The 2004 environmental review specifically approved 125 total wells to be drilled at the Arroyo Grande oilfield.

As of February, 160 had allegedly been approved, according to the lawsuit.

No additional environmental review appears to have been conducted for the 35 extra wells, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also claims CalGEM has not done additional environmental review to approve oil wells in the Wilmington oilfield near Long Beach. The last time an environmental review was conducted for that oilfield was in 1973, according to the lawsuit.

In 2021, CalGEM proposed prohibiting new oil wells and facilities within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other sensitive locations.

That’s because the agency found, through a 15-member public health expert panel, that there’s a strong connection between close proximity to oil and gas developments and higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, respiratory diseases, heart disease and other health impacts.

Senate Bill 1137, which was passed during the 2022 legislative session, would require all oil or gas production facilities or wells within a health protection zone to comply with new regulations. The law is on hold until a referendum to uphold the contested legislation goes before voters in the November 2024 election.

“There definitely is a great deal more that we know about the harms of oil and gas operations now,” Jones said. “The San Luis Obispo cases also screamed out for additional environmental reviews because (the 2004 review) did have limits as far as the number of wells that were being analyzed — and that number has already been drilled.”

“There needs to be further review if there are going to be additional wells drilled,” she added.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that CalGEM has violated state laws by approving the new wells in the Arroyo Grande and Wilmington oil fields.

It also requests that CalGEM be forced to vacate its approvals of the new wells and not grant any new well approvals unless it “complies with its obligations under CEQA and the California Public Resources Code.”

In Thursday’s release, former San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon criticized CalGEM for approving the oil drilling.

“With increased wildfires, sea-level rise and drought, the Central Coast is on the front line of the climate crisis,” said Harmon, who recently served as senior public affairs director at the Santa Cruz-based Romero Institute. “When the state rubberstamps new oil drilling, the consequences are steep for our community’s water, our property values and our children’s future. As the recent former mayor of San Luis Obispo, I stand with the people of the Central Coast against this egregious action by CalGEM.”

A new oil rig being built on the Arroyo Grande field on Oct. 18.
A new oil rig being built on the Arroyo Grande field on Oct. 18.