According to the rules set forth by San Luis Obispo County supervisors,
there is typically no room for applause during meetings. But neither decorum nor hellfire could suppress the thunderous ovations and verbal acclaim from the audience the moment the final “aye” was called.
On Aug. 21, a unanimous Board of Supervisors dealt the final blow to a project most residents of the Huasna Valley have devoted years to fighting; pitting a small but well-organized association of rural residents against mineral rights owners and a subsidiary for two major foreign-owned oil companies.
Excelaron’s plan to drill as many as 12 wells in the rural valley, roughly 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande, has been ongoing for the past five years.
Huasna Valley residents and county staff have long held that the project was not a good fit for the community, with its characteristically narrow roads and its isolated location roughly 30 minutes away from the nearest emergency responders.
Excelaron planner Carol Florence told the board the company felt the county Planning Commission’s denial of the project in spring was unfair as no alternatives were considered. The company immediately appealed the commission’s decision to county supervisors.
Company representatives were asking to continue the appeal process months down the line in order to study “modifications” to the project and mitigate potential noise and environmental impacts.
Some residents saw the continuance as a thinly veiled attempt to wait out the clock until Debbie Arnold takes her seat on the board of supervisors in January, a transition that’s widely believed to flip the board to a more development-friendly 3-2 majority.
Excelaron holds that the project would benefit the county, providing a source of jobs and tax revenue, in addition to its commitment to a Solar-for-Schools program. Florence added the project also provided residents with a “rare opportunity to examine antiquated attitudes” toward oil exploration.
Florence said that over the five years the project has been in the works, this was the first time the company had asked for a continuance.
“Frankly, I have had a hard time explaining to my clients what the justification would be for denying a continuance,” Florence said. “The new analysis should see the light of day.”
In fact, the company asked for a continuance when its project was before county planning commissioners as well.
Ron Skinner, president of the Huasna Foundation, a group formed to fight the proposed project, said a continuance would only delay the project’s looming denial.
“There are hundreds of county residents that have expressed their opposition to the Excelaron project,” Skinner said to a sea of agreeable hand-waving. “We have said enough.”
But that didn’t stop residents—many from outside of Huasna Valley—from testifying just for good measure.
“Excelaron promised they would do anything to make the environment safe. So why don’t they stop drilling then?” said resident Sarah Bellum.
Huasna Valley resident Ben Rhodes warned supervisors that continuing the process would “start a war” with his neighbors.
“You’re talking about these people’s homes, their children’s future,” Rhodes said.
Other residents argued that the company has not been forthright about its intentions, claiming that Excelaron likely had plans for even more wells in the future and there’s no guarantee the drilling operations wouldn’t use controversial hydraulic fracking methods. Company officials have said publicly they didn’t have plans to use fracking, if the project was approved.
Painfully aware the hearing wasn’t going her client’s way, Florence attempted to rebuff the opposition and appeal to the board’s responsibility to owners of the valley’s mineral rights, which she said would be essentially useless unless the county allowed access to the area.
“I don’t need to remind you that oil is where you find it, and there is oil in the Huasna Valley,” she said.
Most board members pointed out that they are not opposed to oil drilling, but that there were too many problems and uncertainties with the project to give Excelaron a “false sense of hope” by delaying a decision for months. Citing their responsibility toward residents, supervisors said they would examine every future oil project on a case-by-case basis.
“The impacts are just too far-reaching for what is essentially a speculative project,” Supervisor Adam Hill said.
“What is compatible?” Supervisor Frank Mecham asked rhetorically. “Well, I can tell you what is not—this [project] is not.”
Deputy County Counsel Whitney McDonald reported that the death of this project would not preclude Excelaron from resubmitting an amended proposal for a new project in the future.
Florence, however, said the denial may end the company’s interest in the area, as it appears unlikely that a similar oil project would be accepted by residents.
Perhaps the Huasna-Excelaron saga was summed up best by Huasna Valley resident Willow Walking Turtle: “Never underestimate a small, dedicated group of people.” ∆
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.