Oil exploration firm looks at nature preserve


Oil exploration firm looks at nature preserve

With crude at $100, there’s more pressure than ever for seismic testing on San Luis Obispo grassland

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Published: Sunday, Mar. 02, 2008 | Page 4A

WASHINGTON – The fight over cattle grazing at Carrizo Plain National Monument is nearing an end.

But controversy over oil and gas exploration on the 250,000-acre grasslands preserve is just beginning to raise new concerns about protecting its endangered species.

Vintage Production, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, owns 30,000 acres of mineral rights in the heart of the monument’s valley floor in Eastern San Luis Obispo County.

With oil now topping $100 a barrel, Vintage has notified the Bureau of Land Management that it wants to find out what’s there.

Vintage’s holdings are under the heart of the monument grounds, which contain some of the last vestiges of San Joaquin Valley grasslands. It’s also home to many endangered species – including the kangaroo rat, which lives in the ground Vintage wants to explore.

John Dearing, a BLM spokesman, said the agency can’t stop any exploration because the company’s mineral rights predate former President Clinton’s creation of the monument in early 2001.

“Because this is a national monument, there will be environmental concerns that will have to be strongly looked at,” Dearing said. “But they have a right to access.”

The monument is not virgin territory for drilling rigs. It’s just over a hill from Kern County’s oil fields, and there is a small amount of production in the monument’s remote canyons.

The exploration proposal, which Dearing said has yet to be submitted to the BLM, is dividing environmentalists.

“Oil drilling is not going to occur on the Carrizo Plain National Monument without a huge battle,” said Pat Veesart, a former member of the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission and a board member of Los Padres ForestWatch.

“If anyone wants to drill for oil there, they had better be prepared to go to war over it,” Veesart said.

Others see an opportunity, noting that – at least initially – no holes would be bored into the ground.

Seismic testing will determine whether there is oil and gas in Vintage’s holdings, and that in turn could set a value for the mineral estate.

With such a value established, the BLM could begin negotiations to trade other oil rights for Vintage’s monument property or open talks with the BLM’s monument partners – the state Department of Fish and Game and The Nature Conservancy – for an outright purchase.

“If they had a show, it might let us get our heads together for a trade out,” said Tom Maloney, the conservancy’s San Luis Obispo County project manager. “It’s just exploration now and not development.”

Alice Bond of The Wilderness Society agreed that testing may be worth the risk if it leads to a buyout of Vintage’s drilling rights. About 130,000 acres of the monument’s mineral rights are privately owned.

“It would be good if we could start moving forward to a purchase of those,” Bond said.

Since the monument’s creation, it has been a battleground over cattle grazing. The monument’s former manager, Marlene Braun, committed suicide during the height of those tensions, believing she had been sidelined by her superiors seeking to protect grazing rights despite the area’s new mission of species protection.

Neil Havlik, the city of San Luis Obispo’s natural resources manager and chairman of the advisory committee, said the BLM’s approach to monument grazing has changed greatly since Braun’s death.

“What impressed everyone is that the BLM, the Department of Fish and Game and The Nature Conservancy staff are all on the same wavelength now,” Havlik said.

According to the draft management plan, Havlik said, the needs of native wildlife in the monument would largely determine where and when grazing occurs.

“This is a major breakthrough,” he said. “This says that the needs of native animals will direct the vegetation program.”

But with oil exploration, native fauna like the kangaroo rat could face new risks. Vintage would use huge trucks thumping the ground to send shock waves deep into the subsurface, using sensitive electronic equipment to outline formations and measure production potential.

According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, which fought seismic exploration on BLM land in Wyoming, the thumper trucks can be especially hard on burrowing animals such as the kangaroo rat. He cited a BLM study showing that the population of white tail prairie dogs dropped after trucks tested an area.

“It is certainly a major industrial undertaking,” he said. “And if something is found, it can lead to a major influx of drilling rigs and bulldozers.”

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