Oil Drilling Could Be New Nadir for Pinnacles National Park

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Author: Jason Mark

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On Monday, February 11, hundreds of people — including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Congressman Sam Farr — gathered together to celebrate the creation of the United States’ newest national park, Pinnacles.

An unusual outcropping of volcanic rock spires rising from the oak savannah of the California Coast Range, Pinnacles is a 27,000-acre wildlands preserve that is home to foxes, badgers, eagles and an estimated 31 California condors, a species once on the edge of extinction that has now rebounded thanks to a decades-long recovery campaign.

“Our parks offer opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation with family and friends,” Secretary Salazar said at the ceremony, reading from a letter from President Obama, “and they provide a safe and accessible setting to appreciate the bounty of our land … Pinnacles National Park is now among these cherished sites.”

Cherished, perhaps, but not necessarily free from potential threats.

As the dignitaries were celebrating Pinnacles’ elevation from a national monument to a national park, the staff at the local San Benito County Planning Department were preparing the paperwork for an application for exploratory oil wells just seven miles (as the condor flies) from the southern border of the park.

A California wildcatter oil company, Citadel Exploration, is seeking to drill up to 15 steam injection wells on a cattle ranch south of the park. In the 1970s, Chevron drilling in the area came up with what in the industry is known as “heavy oil” — petroleum deposits with the consistency of Play-Doh. If Citadel’s exploratory wells hit oil that is recoverable and economic to extract, the company will then seek permits for full field development. A company executive says a full field could involve “conservatively, a couple of hundred wells” spread over some 680 acres.

That prospect has some residents of the region and environmental groups worried. They fear that the presence of heavy industry could undermine the recovery of the California condor, a federally protected endangered species. They say the steam injection process will use vast amounts of water in a semi-arid region — as much as 17 million gallons of water for the exploratory wells alone. And they warn of the possibility of groundwater contamination or surface spills that could come with drilling.

Opposition to this one exploratory drilling project is being fueled by larger worries over a possible new oil rush in Central California. The region sits above a geologic formation, the Monterey Shale, that, like the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, contains vast amounts of oil. The deposit is thought to hold more than 400 billion barrels of oil — far more than the Bakken or Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale. About 15 billion barrels of petroleum are recoverable using existing technologies, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

The park is home to an estimated 31 California condors, a species once on the edge of extinction that has now rebounded thanks to a decades-long recovery campaign.

Critics of the drilling near Pinnacles are afraid it could be a glimpse of what’s to come. “Our water quality, our air quality, our roads, our way of life — we don’t want to become an industrial zone,” says Maureen Cain, a member of a citizen’s group called Aromas Cares for Our Environment. “A lot of it just doesn’t make sense for this area. But don’t say that to the oil guys.”

Aromas is a sleepy farming town about 80 miles north of Pinnacles National Park. Cain and some her neighbors formed Aromas Cares for Our Environment last summer after a company called Freedom Resources began conducting seismic testing in the area for oil and gas deposits. The group has since been working with officials in San Benito County to rewrite the county’s oil drilling ordinances, which haven’t been updated in about 40 years.

“I don’t want to say there’s fear, but there is concern over what could be coming,” says Byron Turner, assistant planning director for the county.

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