Just two days after residents flocked to Avila Beach to swoon over a pair of humpback whales that ventured near shore, a powerful state agency handed Pacific Gas and Electric a crucial permit necessary to begin its controversial seismic surveys off the Central Coast in about two months.
Critics of the proposed studies point primarily to “significant” and “unavoidable” consequences to marine life and adverse effects on local commerce—as foretold in the project’s environmental impact report—as reason enough to deny the surveys.
But on Aug. 20 in Sacramento, the State Lands Commission said those effects could pale in comparison to a large seismic event around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Commissioners voted unanimously to issue PG&E its permit to analyze the risk.
The hearing was continued from Aug. 14, when the commission failed to agree on the permit, but certified the environmental report in order for PG&E to maintain its schedule with a number of other state and federal agencies that have yet to weigh in.
However, commissioners modified the scope of the project, trimming its timeframe by 15 days in what they called an effort to reduce damage to marine wildlife. Under the new modifications, the utility’s contracted research vessel can be in the water by Nov. 1, pending approval of the California Coastal Commission. PG&E is permitted to conduct the studies through Dec. 31.
PG&E officials said they’re uncertain whether the changes will require them to split the survey over a two-year period.
The vast majority of roughly 40 local residents attending a special
video conference at the Inn at Morro Bay decried the project as harmful to the marine environment, and said there haven’t been enough studies on the possible long-term effects on marine ecosystems.
“I have not witnessed [a mobilized citizenry] to this degree in my time in city government—people who are typically not likely to sit on the same side,” Morro Bay Councilman Noah Smukler testified. “We’re all dependent on the health of our ocean.”
But some residents lamented that commissioners had already made their decision and were merely going through the motions. At least two speakers were cut off prior to their full three minutes of public comment because commissioners said they were not speaking specifically to the seismic survey permit.
“I want to assure folks that the decision has not been made,” Commissioner Pedro Reyes, who was filling in for Director of Finance Ana Matosantos, said immediately following public comment. The week prior, Reyes stated that all his questions had been answered and he was “ready to move forward” with the project at that time.
No one who spoke before the commission supported the plan.
PG&E’s plan entails using a vessel to tow acoustic arrays that record reflections of sound emissions from massive air guns in the open ocean. The arrays will record 3D images of the area’s seismic landscape offshore. The entire study is expected to cost roughly $64 million, for which the company is currently seeking approval to charge customers.
According to Coastal Commission staff, uncertainty over the lands commission’s decision prevented PG&E’s project from making it on the September agenda, and it will likely be heard between Oct. 10 and 12. PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones told New Times the company is confident the short timeline will not affect its surveys.