A Test Oil and Gas Well Will Move Forward in the Cuyama Valley

An oil and gas drilling rig like this one in Michigan will be used by the West Bay Exploration Co. for up to 24 days this year to drill an exploratory well in the Cuyama Valley. Photo courtesy of West Bay Exploration.

Opponents did not appeal county Planning Commission’s 4-1 approval

An exploratory oil and gas well, the first such project in recent memory in Santa Barbara County, and the first believed ever to be approved for a permit, will likely be drilled before next fall on a private ranch in the Cuyama Valley.

The project was approved 4-1 last month by the county Planning Commission amid a chorus of protest from a coalition of community and environmentalist groups. This week, opponents said they were disappointed in the vote but would not appeal to the county Board of Supervisors to overturn it.

“Time will tell whether the proposed exploratory oil well is ultimately successfully,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, a conservationist group that led the opposition. “ForestWatch and our allies — as well as residents throughout Santa Barbara County — will be ready to fight any future proposals to expand oil drilling in the Cuyama Valley.”

The Hidden Canyon Test Well, as the project is named, was proposed by the West Bay Exploration Co. of Traverse City, Mich. on one acre of the 6,565-acre North Fork Ranch off School House Canyon Road, 10 miles west of the town of New Cuyama. As approved, the well will be 11,000 feet, or just over two miles, deep; and the drilling, conducted around the clock, will take up to 24 days.

“I’m not aware of any exploratory permit granted by the county,” Errin Briggs, a supervising planner in the county’s Energy, Minerals & Compliance Division, told the commission at a Jan. 31 hearing on the project. “It may be the first one we’ve ever done.”

Since 2012, the North Fork Ranch has been owned by Brodiaea Inc., a firm that is registered in Delaware and forms part of Harvard University’s $51 billion endowment fund. Brodiaea installed a 840-acre vineyard on the ranch, the largest such operation in the Cuyama Valley, a remote and semi-arid agricultural region east of Santa Maria.

In 2021, Harvard pledged to divest from its investments in fossil fuels — but Brodiaea does not own or control the underground mineral rights to the North Fork Ranch. According to county records, West Bay began leasing those rights from Miriam Stull, a 94-year-old resident of Bakersfield, in August 2019.

West Bay is the largest oil producer in Michigan, and it is invested in carbon capture projects at old oil and gas fields in that state. Tim Baker, the test well project manager, said he hopes to start and finish drilling at the North Fork Ranch before Harvard’s grape harvest gets underway in late summer. The company needs one final permit from the state Geologic Energy Management Division, the agency that oversees health and public safety in the industry.

Despite the fact that there are eight abandoned oil wells at the ranch and an abandoned drilling core where a sample of underground rock was taken, Baker said West Bay had high hopes for the Hidden Canyon test well, based on seismic surveys of the layers of porous sandstone deep underground. The company expects to spend $2 million on the project.

“We’re eternal optimists, I guess,” Baker said.

More than 200 people wrote letters or spoke at last month’s hearing in opposition to the West Bay project. They called it, variously, a “dangerous and unnecessary backward step,” a “boondoggle” and “the camel’s nose under our tent.”

“It’s hard to imagine that if this well were to be successful, leading to the establishment of a new oil field in the Cuyama Valley, how the County could justify allowing the inevitable increase of greenhouse gas emissions,” Lynn Carlisle, executive director of the Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center, wrote to the commission.

Besides Carlisle’s organization, project opponents included the Cuyama Valley Community Association and Family Resource Center; Cuyamans Against Water Grabs; Quail Springs Permaculture, an educational nonprofit group in the valley; the Sierra Club of Santa Barbara and Ventura; Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; Santa Barbara Audubon Society; Santa Barbara County Action Network; 350 Santa Barbara; and the Center for Biological Diversity, a national advocacy group with headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.

This one-acre site on the North Fork Ranch 10 miles west of New Cuyama is slated for the first exploratory oil well in the county in recent memory. Photo by Katie Nall, Santa Barbara County Planning & Development.

West Bay’s gamble

Baker said he was aware that West Bay would face political headwinds if and when the company seeks a permit to produce oil on the North Fork Ranch. Regardless, West Bay sees a need for more oil, Baker said, because the company believes it will take decades for the United States to switch over to wind and solar and other forms of renewable energy. Baker also noted that oil is used in the manufacture of countless products such as plastics, clothing and pharmaceuticals.

“Although California is leading the transition to renewables, it can’t happen overnight,” he said. “We hope to fill the need to continue to supply California with oil and gas during that period of transition.”

Starting in the early 1900s, thousands of exploratory oil and gas wells were drilled onshore in Santa Barbara County, decades before local governments started regulating the industry. Today, 2,000 wells are still active in half a dozen vintage oil fields from Lompoc to Cuyama. They are the last of what used to be many thousands of active onshore wells during the boom years of the first half of the 20th century.

So the prospect of any new exploratory drilling in the county, with its long history of oil spills both on- and offshore, and its reputation as the birthplace of the environmentalist movement, is jarring to many.

“I am concerned about the potential increase in oil production in the Cuyama Valley and the county in general,” said county Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the valley. “It can look good in the short term, but it’s not sustainable. Cuyama has already experienced the boom-and-bust cycle of oil. My big hope for the valley is that we can find more longterm economic strategies and not be dependent on large corporations coming in and exploiting its resources and then leaving.”

Briggs couldn’t remember the last time an exploratory oil well was drilled onshore in the county. In an unusual move, he said, West Bay is proposing to drill outside existing oil fields, specifically, the South Cuyama and Russell Ranch fields of the Cuyama Valley. The test well also will be one of the county’s deepest: most onshore oil wells are between 800 and 5,000 feet deep.

Baker said West Bay’s well will be a far cry from those of the last century in terms of safety. The company’s standard protocol, he said, is to use cement evaluation tools and pressure tests to check a well for leaks and cracks before the drill bit is lowered in. The drilling mud that is removed from the well hole will be loaded onto one truck daily to the McKittrick Waste Landfill, Baker said.

If the well fails to hit an oil deposit within 24 days, the drill rig will be immediately removed, and the wellhead will be removed within one year.

Greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane released by burning fossil fuels— trap the heat of the sun in the atmosphere, warming the surface of the earth. Amid worldwide efforts to avert catastrophic climate change, Santa Barbara County is working on a 2030 Climate Action Plan that, in draft form, pledges to cut greenhouse gases by half below 2018 levels by the end of this decade and to “limit the increase of fossil fuel extraction emissions and develop a sunset strategy.” In a sign of the times, the county has approved two solar projects in the Cuyama Valley in recent years.

Statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom has set a goal of phasing out oil extraction and refining by 2045.

Last year, according to the California Energy Commission, more than half the oil that went to state refineries — 312,000 out of a total 528,000 barrels — was imported from foreign countries such as Iraq, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

West Bay, Baker said, could potentially be a local source for oil and would use state-of-the-art technology to trap methane, the most potent greenhouse gas.

“It’s a good thing to transition, but you have to transition in a planned way,” he said. “We try to drill our wells with careful concern for the environment.”

“Bound by the rules”

Opponents of the West Bay project had urged the Planning Commission to require a comprehensive environmental report on the potential impacts of a test well — and any future oil production on the North Fork Ranch, should the test prove to be successful  — on air pollution, greenhouse gases, Highway 166 traffic, endangered plants and animals, and the water quality of the valley’s depleted groundwater basin.

Several members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, weighed in, too. When Brodiaea purchased the North Fork Ranch in 2012, it was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Harvard Management Co., which oversees Harvard’s endowment. In 2020, Harvard Management outsourced its natural resources investments, including Brodiaea, to Solum Partners, a Boston-based agricultural investment firm. Harvard Management retains a limited partnership in Solum.

“We have no room for unlimited fossil fuel development if we want to survive,” said Grant Pace, a Harvard law student. “Harvard’s land is being used in an attempt to profit off of the accelerated destruction of the planet through these land grabs …”

In the end, the commission majority decided not to insist on a wider review of the West Bay test well. Briggs told commissioners that the county ordinance allowed for separate review of oil exploration and oil production — a two-stage process not permitted for other types of development. Given the uncertainty of exploration, Briggs said, county ordinances “create a pathway for drillers to explore without having to create a whole program, not knowing whether they’re going to hit the reservoir or not.”

Commissioner Roy Reed, who represents unincorporated North County communities such as Orcutt and Los Alamos, made the motion to approve the West Bay project, saying it was a “great advantage” to be reviewing the plan for an exploratory well separately.

“It has a very finite lifespan,” he said. “It has a definite beginning and a definite end … quite unlike an oil production plan” which “is open-ended and may extend for years.”

Reed, a rancher who was recently appointed to fill the 4th District seat of Larry Ferini, a 12-year veteran of the commission, informed the public that of 220 letters submitted against the project, he viewed as “most impactful” those that had been personally crafted and turned in by valley residents living near the site; followed by letters from organizations; followed by letters from executive directors and attorneys “who are getting paid to comment;” and, as “least impactful,” the “copy and click” form letters from residents who don’t live in the area.

Commissioner Laura Bridley, who represents Goleta and parts of Santa Barbara, voted for the project, but added: “I want to encourage the neighbors that are opposed to this well drilling to not give up.”

Commissioner John Parke of Solvang cast the sole “no” vote against the exploratory well, saying that more environmental review was needed. While the staff report stated that there were no rare plants on the property, Parke said he had “been through that site a hundred times on horseback” and seen rare plants make a comeback in wet years. He also noted that four biological surveys of the property had been turned in only the night before the meeting and had not been viewed by the public. The commission took a break so that they could be posted online.

Commissioner Mike Cooney, who represents the Cuyama Valley, reluctantly joined the majority in approving the project, saying he was “bound by the rules.” At the same time, he noted that the impacts of oil drilling in the Cuyama Valley had been “significant.”

“In my view, they outweigh the benefits of throwing a little more oil into the production phase,” Cooney said. “But I feel bound by the rules. This will be a rare vote for me.”

Finally, in a Feb. 9  letter to the commission, Kuyper of ForestWatch objected to what he called Reed’s “dismissive remarks” ranking the public’s input from various sources. Form emails, Kuyper said, were a way for the “vast majority” of people who couldn’t attend a meeting in the middle of the day to comment on a project; and he said he was speaking for them, too.

“… I want to emphasize that working in the environmental non-profit sector is not a lucrative venture,” Kuyper wrote. “ … I chose this profession to make a meaningful contribution to our community.”

Melinda Burns

Written by Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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