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KCBX Two-Way: SLO Board of Supervisors approve new oil wells in Arroyo Grande

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On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors denied an appeal from the Center for Biological Diversity and allowed additional time to be allotted to an oil company to drill 31 of the 95 approved oil wells in Arroyo Grande. KCBX’s Benjamin Purper spoke with San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Mackenzie Shuman about the decision.

Purper: Mackenzie Shuman, education and environment reporter for the SLO Tribune, thanks for joining us.

Shuman: Thank you for having me.

Purper: So first off, can you give us a timeline of this case? I understand it was six years in the making.

Shuman: Yes. To really grasp the full timeline of it, you have to go back to about 2004. That's when the county gave [Sentinel Peak Resources] their permit to develop and build 130 oil wells on this property in Arroyo Grande and a time limit of 10 years to build those 130 wells. Fast forward to 2015, Freeport McMoRan now had the property, but they didn't build all 130 wells. They had 31 left over. So, they asked the county to essentially grant them another three years to build those wells. The county said yes, but then the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization, appealed that and said you shouldn't have another environmental review on these 31 wells. That stopped the whole process. Essentially, one thing led to another and then there's an aquifer exemption process going on, COVID, a mixture of other things that essentially delayed the hearing for six years. So, it took quite a while to hear the appeal finally.

Purper: So the supervisors that voted to allow the new wells, what was their reasoning?

Shuman: There's a lot of different discussions that went on during the hearing from supervisors, specifically, Dawn Ortiz-Legg, she focused on the fact that the products that we use in our day-to-day lives, like our phones, or pens, or anything, comes from petroleum products. That was sort of reflected with the other supervisors who were also concerned about economic benefits. So, if they didn't pull out these 31 wells to go forward, what would happen to the workers there? What would happen to the property taxes that they get from that? So that was their various reasons. But it really boiled down to economics and the fact that we are consumers still with petroleum products. And so, if we can as cleanly as possible produce oil locally, then we want to go ahead and do that.

Purper: What about Bruce Gibson, the dissenting vote?

Shuman: Bruce was the sole dissenting vote who sort of agreed with the Center for Biological Diversity and the fact that that the 31 additional wells should have additional environmental review. He brought up this interesting point about how when an oil rig is built, it essentially loses its production value by about 5% to 10% each year. So, a new well is built and a year later, it's producing five percent less oil. So, he thought that if we allow them three more years to build these 31 wells, eventually, they're just going to need another permit to continue their operations because even those wells are going to depreciate right up to the point of why we don’t just loop this into a future project where they will likely want to expand their oil operations there.

Purper: Okay, so what was public comment like at the meeting?

Shuman: Yeah, it was pretty evenly split. I would say the first few comments were against the appeal. They wanted the board to go ahead with allowing the time extension, and essentially a few workers from the oil fields spoke. They spoke about how they enjoyed the job there, they enjoyed their coworkers, and it was safe. They said it was clean, it was a good place to work, and they loved working on the Central Coast in the oilfield. Those were the comments that shocked me the most from that side. And from the other side, from those who supported the appeal, they were worried about the environment, the clean air, the clean water, and whether expanding the oil field would hurt their children's health and the future with extracting fossil fuels. So yeah, it's very common, but it was very evenly split. If not, exactly.

Purper: And how are local environmental groups reacting to this decision?

Shuman: Locally, we had ECOSLO, the environmental center, and they were very much so in favor of the appeal. They did not want this to go forward. And they were pretty disappointed about the Board of Supervisors vote and they spoke out against it. ECOSLO, along with 11 other organizations, wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors before the hearing outlining their support for the Center for Biological’s appeal and the Sierra Club and other local organizations were included in favor of the appeal. So, I think
in general, it's safe to say that local environmental organizations were pretty disappointed by the boards.

Purper: Okay, Mackenzie Shuman, reporter for the SLO Tribune. Thanks again for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Shuman: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be here.

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