As I walked into the small echoing room in the South County Regional Center, Alison MacLeod of KP Public Affairs, the new consultant for Australian oil-prospecting company Excelaron, quickly honed in on my obvious reporter mystique.
After a brief chat at the environmental scoping session in Arroyo Grande for Excelaron’s Huasna Valley oil exploration project, MacLeod acknowledged that “we’re expecting a lot of the same types of comments” as in previous meetings.
But in a meeting where much of the information has already been hashed and rehashed over about three years—depending on which incantation of the project was on the table—the real story seems a battle of dress as much as it is of wits.
Huasna residents, mostly country folk, banded together as the Huasna Valley Association to fight Excelaron, the multinational oil prospecting company seeking to drill in the quiet rural valley. Though lacking oil expertise, association members were effective enough to cause Excelaron to withdraw its original drilling proposal and resubmit under a larger environmental review.
At the March 29 meeting, juxtaposed attire clearly segregated suave consultants and county officials from the ragtag group of neighbors and ranchers turned amateur engineers.
MacLeod stood with poise in a subtle pin-striped jacket and matching dress slacks topped by a head of neatly styled brunette hair highlighted with faint streaks of blond. Her heels rose her frame just enough to imply confidence but not intimidate young reporters in jeans and checkered slip-on sneakers, for example.
Australian oil tycoon Grant Jagelman shuffled by with his characteristic dopey look atop a pair of casual slacks and light blue button-up shirt—a perfect look for blending into the crowd.
Supervisor Katcho Achadjian had stripped down his usual suit and tie for the I-just-got-off-work look. Balancing his dress shirt for a more casual look, Achadjian never removed his sleek leather jacket despite the relatively warm temperature.
Planner John Nall perhaps stole the county show in a casual yet formal outfit that could have landed him any Men’s Warehouse ad of his choosing.
The rest of the crowd fared more on the homely side. A collection of ranchers and all-around rabble-rousers, they clearly sought to emphasize their homegrown personas with earthy tones, bargain-store jeans, and patterned shirts—perhaps in an effort to throw the consultants and planners off guard, using unassuming clothing to distract from their newly developed expertise in Huasna Valley oil production.
Resident Ron Skinner displayed a chart of Excelaron’s projected production with 12 wells at most, and his own independent study, which he believed showed the company needs to constantly add and abandon wells over about 15 years to stay profitable.
“We believe this is Excelaron’s real plan,” Skinner said, wearing a plain checkered button-up shirt.
MacLeod assured that despite such suspicions, the company can drill no more than 12 oil wells, if approved.
MacLeod walked out of the room for an interview with a TV reporter, quickly followed by resident Anna Gabriel who was upset the reporter was interviewing MacLeod instead of residents voicing their worries about the project.
“The interview is with him,” Gabriel yelled at the pair, referring to an older man in a forest-green sweater at the podium.
Achadjian helped quell the argument. No outfits were harmed.
County planners indicated the purpose of the meeting was to receive input for the project’s Environmental Impact Report, which is due for a public screening in about four to six months. Once that EIR hits the SLO County Planning Commission, it’s certain that the heavy-hitter issues will be impacts to water supply, placing large oil-carrying rigs on tiny rural roads, and a pervasive public suspicion that Excelaron isn’t providing the full scope of the project. However, there will be no garment-related studies in the EIR.