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Price Canyon oil permit extension appealed

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The Center for Biological Diversity appealed the SLO County Planning Commission’s decision to extend the life of an oil drilling project permit approved 10 years ago in Price Canyon.

“A decade ago, we did not have a historic drought that forced us to rethink how we use water in the state,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, the staff climate attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Ten years ago, we did not realize how little oversight and regulation the oil industry is subjected to.”

Golden-Krasner’s last argument is strengthened by last year’s discovery of thousands of oil project-related wells in California that were permitted for injection/reinjection of water into aquifers that were covered under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Between 70 and 80 of those wells belonged to Freeport McMoRan, the company drilling into the Arroyo Grande field via Price Canyon. However, none of Freeport’s wells needed to be shut down due to groundwater contamination concerns.

In fact, the oil company opted to apply for a larger aquifer exemption within the oil field, which would increase the area considered unsafe for human consumption—thereby increasing the area that can be drilled into for oil. The Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) held a public meeting in San Luis Obispo in September regarding the exemption and announced an additional 15-day public comment period on the application starting Dec. 2. 

Golden-Krasner said the Center hasn’t had a chance to review the new information released on the application, yet.

“But, before, there wasn’t enough evidence to show that the aquifer was actually isolated from other groundwater that is used by domestic wells,” she said. 

That particular argument also came up at the Nov. 12 Planning Commission meeting where a three-year permit extension was granted for Freeport McMoRan to drill the remaining 31 wells left on a project originally approved in 2005. 

State, county, and regional hydrogeologists disagreed with the argument put forth by the Center for Biological Diversity. Instead, they said that the oil field, and therefore aquifer, underneath Price Canyon is separated from the aquifers next to it by geological formations that essentially seal it off. Those experts also agree that the water held beneath Price Canyon is undrinkable because it contains oil. 

Golden-Krasner said the Center would at least like the 31 wells to be included in the environmental impact report for Freeport McMoRan’s next project: the drilling of up to 450 new oil wells. 

John McKenzie, a senior planner with the SLO County Planning and Building Department, said the county is still reviewing the approximately 240-page appeal letter. Once that job is completed and a staff report responding to the appeal is completed, the item will go before the county Board of Supervisors. 

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