Litigation threats push city oil drilling ban to November
By Peter Dugré
The Carpinteria City Council played political action committee at its Oct. 13 meeting by officially endorsing Measure U, the $90 million Carpinteria school bond initiative, and Measure P, the Santa Barbara County ban on hydraulic fracturing among other oil extraction techniques. Although on a roll, the council was unable to find consensus on its third heady topic, whether to ban oil drilling in Carpinteria, specifically at Venoco Inc.’s property, where the company has applied to drill.
City Councilman Al Clark had proposed addressing whether to change zoning at Venoco’s Dump Road Oil and Gas Processing Plant earlier in the year, and since then Venoco’s application for its Paredon Project has been deemed complete by city hall, clearing it to begin the long approval process. At the Oct. 13 meeting, city staff said that as part of ongoing analysis of city zoning codes, there are several options to alter the zoning code in ways to either ban drilling there or to more closely regulate drilling projects.
Venoco’s property is zoned coastal dependent industrial, which allows it to conduct operations serving the offshore oil platforms. Its zoning designation also currently allows it to drill for oil. The council could alter zoning in several ways, either by prohibiting oil drilling at coastal dependent industrial sites or by changing the zone of the site altogether.
Several oil industry representatives and Venoco’s local Vice President Ian Livett addressed the council and stated in no uncertain terms that acting to prohibit drilling on the property would induce litigation. Livett characterized the timeliness of the city’s analysis of the company’s zoning as “a direct attack on Venoco’s application,” and said changes “would force Venoco to take all measures necessary to protect its property.”
The company’s local operations manager Larry Huskins echoed the sentiment. “Because of potential litigation here, I think the taxpayers wouldn’t want to pay for the costs …,” he stated of the council’s potential action.
Dozens more locals urged the council to ban drilling at the site, which would ban all oil drilling projects in the city of Carpinteria unless new sites were found and rezoned to allow drilling. Carpinteria city attorneys explained that if the city bans drilling, it would be vulnerable to litigation. Attorneys said the city’s zoning powers are broad according to California law, but the current proposal was in no way bulletproof.
Local resident Jim Taylor, who is also Vice President of Carpinteria Valley Association, called on the city to act. “If the people of this city cannot trust elected representatives to prevent a new, highly industrial activity in the city, then what good is the city?” he asked.
City Councilman Gregg Carty proposed intensifying local drilling oversight and regulation but not banning drilling. The other council members all wanted further information on litigation risks specifically tied to actions it could take, so the council decided to postpone any decision until its Nov. 24 meeting.
In conclusion, Mayor Brad Stein said, “When it comes to litigation, that’s an old threat, and we’ve never shied away from it. We should make the best decision given the information.”
Yes on P
In a split 3-2 vote, the city council decided to endorse Measure P following intense public debate. Gregg Carty and Wade Nomura voted against endorsing the measure. They said the measure is too divisive and would not fairly represent Carpinteria’s entire populace. Nomura said he felt the action was “outside (the council’s) purview” and could potentially “alienate 50 percent of the voters of the community.”
The Water Guardians, the group supporting the county-wide ban on fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam injection as techniques for oil extraction, brought Measure P to the ballot because the oil industry techniques contaminate groundwater, they say.
Oil industry representatives and others opposed to Measure P argued that the Water Guardians are campaigning based on fear of fracking all while the technique is not even used in Santa Barbara County. Cyclic steam injection, however, is a commonly used technique in the county, but industry representatives argued that no problems have arisen from cyclic-steam injection in its 50-year history. Industry representatives at the city council meetings equated banning cyclic steam injection on county land to a shut down of the oil industry, an important part of the North County economy and labor force.
Ultimately, Mayor Brad Stein and councilmembers Al Clark and Fred Shaw voted to add the City of Carpinteria to list of endorsements for Measure P. The council majority agreed with the Water Guardians’ position that the oil extraction techniques jeopardize groundwater supplies, which know no city limits. Stein called support for risky techniques in North County short sighted. “Once water is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no price to put on that,” Stein said.
Yes on U
In another 3-2 vote, the city endorsed Measure U, urging voters to support Carpinteria Unified School District in its request for $90 million dollars to upgrade local schools. Councilmen Al Clark and Wade Nomura opposed endorsing the measure. Nomura said he does not think it’s the council’s place to make political endorsements. Clark opposed the bond as being too big and too general.
“I have a problem with the lack of specificity. I’d like to see a bond measure with a list of specific projects and a list of specific costs,” Clark said. Nomura said he personally will vote for Measure U.
Supporters of Measure U were numerous at the meeting. Schools in Carpinteria were all constructed over 50 years ago and desperately need technological and structural upgrades, many said. If enacted, Measure U will add $47 per $100,000 of assessed property value to property taxes within CUSD.
“Having safe and up to date school facilities is something we should expect. It’s a reflection on our community,” councilman Carty said.