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Lawsuit alleges state agency used outdated environmental reviews to approve Arroyo Grande oil wells

Pumpjacks at the Arroyo Grande Oil Field.
Greta Mart / KCBX Public Radio
Pumpjacks at the Arroyo Grande Oil Field.

Two environmental organizations are suing a state oil regulator for approving more than 20 new oil wells across San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles Counties.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic filed the lawsuit last week. It’s against the state’s Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM. The two organizations allege that CalGEM approved 21 new oil wells in Arroyo Grande and Long Beach based on outdated environmental reviews.

CalGEM used an environmental review from 2004 to approve six new oil wells in Arroyo Grande. The Center for Biological Diversity says the agency also relied on an expired study to approve fifteen new oil wells in the Long Beach area.

Senior Attorney Liz Jones said the wells are too close to homes, beaches and biodiverse habitats.

“There's a large body of evidence that says that living so close to oil and gas can result in things like higher rates of asthma and other respiratory issues. And so that's a really huge concern in San Luis Obispo,” Jones said.

The lawsuit alleged the environmental reviews used do not consider the effects these oil wells could have on public health and the climate.

A2018 study by the Colorado School of Public Health found that living within 500 feet of an oil and gas facility can affect people’s neurological, developmental and overall health.

Flickr/Ben Klocek

Both oil fields in Long Beach and Arroyo Grande are planned to be at least 3,200 feet away from homes in the area. CalGEM proposed the idea in 2021 in response to high asthma rates found around oil fields.

CalGEM also approved 15 new oil wells in Long Beach’s Wilmington neighborhood, which is already known for its high cancer and asthma rates. Jones said the new oil wells in this area will be less than 1,000 feet away from a public beach.

“That is really just not appropriate under our environmental laws. You can't rely on an outdated review like that,” Jones said.

Jones also said the 2004 environmental review CalGEM used for SLO County only allows for 125 wells to be approved in the area. But according to the lawsuit, a total of 160 oil wells have now been approved since 2004.

In a statement provided to KCBX, a CalGEM representative said they do not comment on pending legislation.

Arroyo Grande’s oil field is currently owned by Sentinel Peak Resources. At a SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting in 2021, company representative Jeremy Vanderziel said they’re handling their oil production in SLO County responsibly.

“We’re committed to operational excellence, keeping in mind that we understand that we are stewards of precious resources in this county and other counties,” Vanderziel said.

Sentinel Peak Resources representative, Daniel Taimuty, provided a statement to KCBX on the litigation.

"CBD’s lawsuit is not only meritless, but also a prime example of CEQA abuse. The wells at issue in this lawsuit were fully evaluated under CEQA by the County of San Luis Obispo acting as lead agency consistent with the requirements of CEQA promulgated under the country’s most stringent environmental requirements. Sentinel Peak plans to rigorously defend against CBD’s baseless and frivolous allegations," Taimuty said.

The debate over oil wells comes as California is transitioning to carbon-free energy production, but many pro-oil advocates say oil wells like this are needed to help meet energy demand until then.

Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.
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