The engine of Sophie Treder’s Ford F350 screamed and groaned as she floored it up a steep, pockmarked dirt road winding behind Mankin’s Ranch in Huasna Valley.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SHIFTING PERSPECTIVE : If approved, this will be the view of Huasna Valley from Excelaron’s Pad 2 drilling site. But project officials believe residents down below won’t see much of the drilling operation.
Treder, legal counsel for the San Luis Obispo-headquartered oil company Excelaron, cranked the wheel and punched the truck into four-wheel drive to crest the hill, before jamming on the brake as she eased down the other side into a deep valley surrounded by steep hills, oak trees, and hanging moss. Sitting shotgun was Carol Florence, an Oasis Associates planner on Excelaron’s proposed Huasna Valley Oil Exploration and Production Project, decked head to toe in denim.
A foam-core map rattled in the truck bed. It was overlaid by an overhead photo of the landscape, the topographical hunk of foam depicting Excelaron’s yet unborn baby: a 10-year drilling project expected to pull up to 1,000 barrels of crude per day out of as many as 12 wells and to be shipped out by truck off Mankin’s Ranch, south on Huasna Townsite Road, before making a shortcut through the Porter Ranch on the way to Highway 166.
If it’s approved, that is.
And it’s a big “if.” County planners have taken a firm stance against the project—on March 8, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted 4-1 to deny Excelaron’s application for a drilling permit—and the company seems to have lost any significant public support.
The project is now scheduled to go before SLO County supervisors on appeal on May 15. But it still seems a tough sell.
Under the banner of the Huasna Valley Association, a number of people near and around the proposed project site have hung large signs displaying their disapproval. They read:
• “Down with oil drilling.”
• “Don’t turn Huasna into an oil field.”
• “Do you think road tar will solve the energy crisis?”
Actually, the crude Excelaron hopes to pull out of the ground is probably closer in consistency to peanut butter, Treder said. Which is why the company would have to pump hot water into the ground to loosen it up before loading it into trucks.
Concerns over water quality have been at the top of the list for residents. For county officials, the biggest problems brought by Excelaron can be summed up by the significant and unavoidable impacts outlined in the project’s Environmental Impact Report, a document practically large enough to warrant its own list of environmental impacts. The big hurdles, environmentally speaking, are impacts to aesthetics and visual resources, air quality and odor from drilling, biological impacts in the event of an oil spill, land use and recreation, and noise.
However, Treder and Florence say the EIR overstated and unfairly oversimplified some of those impacts. They and other project officials have claimed the project won’t smell, won’t be an eyesore, and won’t destroy the landscape—barring a worst-case scenario like an oil spill or fire.
In fact, they argue, Excelaron’s project is, technically speaking, a greener project than either large-scale solar project currently under construction in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. (SunPower’s and First Solar’s solar projects each had five significant and unavoidable impacts, according to their respective Environmental Impact Reports.)
“I don’t feel like I’m the bad guy,” Florence said while standing at the proposed site for Well Pad 1, perched high enough to watch as the clouds broke and late morning sunlight spilled across Huasna. “I think it’s easy to demonize us.”
“They want to demonize it because it’s not a solar project; it’s an oil project,” Treder added.
Treder and Florence said they were “blindsided” by the county’s about face. In 2007, county planners gave a veritable wave of the hand to Excelaron’s first proposal for four test wells in the same location. But when the project changed in scope to include an additional eight production wells and a more stringent environmental review—along with heaps of controversy—the county’s stance changed.
Here’s the rub: Excelaron has a project many residents don’t want that’s been snubbed by county planners, that’s been denied by the Planning Commission, and that’s now headed to an environmental-leaning Board of Supervisors on appeal.
And it’s election season.
Supervisors Jim Patterson and Adam Hill are each defending their incumbencies as strategic-growth candidates against challengers Debbie Arnold and Ed Waage, respectively.
Asked about the company’s chances of winning at least three votes to secure a permit, Florence said she’s not going to guess.
“I never count my chickens, and I’m forever hopeful,” she chuckled. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be in this business.”
Senior Environmental Planner John McKenzie said the County Planning and Building Department will recommend that county supervisors deny the project. And Florence said members of the Huasna Valley Association will no longer meet with the company.
For residents, it’s not just about this project, but what could be next.
“It would be a foot in the door for future expansion,” said Ron Skinner, one of the primary opponents. “Excelaron has clearly and publicly stated their intention to develop a much larger project.”
Excelaron has maintained it only plans to drill 12 wells, which is all that’s allowable under the proposed permit. Treder said statements to investors were compiled by third parties, which may have overstated the project’s scope, and underestimated the hurdles it will take to gain approval, particularly in a bureaucratic environment like California.
“I don’t know who would want to go through this again,” Treder said.
Neither Treder nor Florence would say whether Excelaron plans to litigate if the appeal is denied. Nearly $5 million has been sunk into getting the project this far, they said, but they wouldn’t say if or when the company might pull the plug.
They’re going to pull each county supervisor out for a site tour before the public hearing.
“I truly believe that [residents] are not going to notice a day-to-day change in their lives,” Treder said. “… The day after we get our permit, those people will probably never have to spend another day in their lives thinking about this oil project.”
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.