Updated: Judge puts nozzle on oil project

A Monterey County Superior Court judge has halted the Project Indian oil development site near Coalinga while citing a lacking environmental review from local officials.
That announcement came last week from the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued San Benito County over its approval last year of the Project Indian site in an oilfield near Coalinga along the Monterey County border. Next, another hearing is scheduled for Aug. 13 to determine consequences from the ruling.
“That means they can’t continue to go forward with the project,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and director of its Climate Law Institute. “It needs to stop and hopefully we’ll work out those details.”
The judge ruled that the county board failed to properly weigh potential impacts through a full environmental impact review – officials bypassed the process in favor of a less time-consuming mitigated negative declaration – when supervisors in June 2013 approved the Project Indian well site.
The Center for Biological Diversity explained how the court agreed that San Benito County unlawfully failed to consider development of the oil field beyond the initial 15 pilot wells and that the county failed to properly analyze water use, pollution risks, greenhouse gas emissions and threats to the California condor.
The ruling, which faces a likely appeal, argues that the project site drains into the Salinas River and could have impacts on the endangered condor.
A spokesman for Ojai-based Citadel Exploration, which owns the project, said in a statement that the company disagrees with the ruling and the judge’s explanation.
“The planners and supervisors of San Benito County did a complete and thorough job of reviewing our project,” wrote spokesman Robert Parry. “All of the appropriate agencies that have oversight of oil and gas operations including The Department of Fish and Wildlife, The Water Resources Board, Air Pollution Control District of Monterey also did an excellent job in making their determinations and Citadel Exploration Inc addressed all associated concerns in line with proper procedure.”
Project Indian uses cyclic steam injections to extract oil. It is among the methods targeted by San Benito Rising on a November ballot initiative asking voters to ban certain types of practices, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Local resident Larry Rebecchi is one of the primary voices for the San Benito Rising group. He believes Citadel’s efforts are getting increasingly more challenging.
“I think it’s just another hurdle for Citadel,” said Rebecchi, of Hollister. “They have a lot of hurdles.”
In explaining the group’s reasoning for filing in Monterey County, the attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that Project Indian is right on the county line. She said with the watershed in both counties, the California Environmental Quality Act allows petitioners to choose where to file such action.
Moving forward, that group and San Benito Rising will face resistance in their efforts from an organized opposition brewing to the November ballot initiative.
“We understand, especially in the business community, there are those interests that wouldn’t like to see investment, specifically in energy,” said Kristina Chavez Wyatt, executive director of the San Benito County Business Council and a paid consultant for a group against the measure.
She responded to the location of the filing by noting that the two largest property taxpayers in Monterey County are Chevron and Aera Energy, the two operators in the massive San Ardo oilfield.
In San Benito County, she said there is a belief that cyclic steam injections or acidization, also included in the proposed ban, are the only ways to extract oil due to geology here.
“Acidization is very common in ag wells,” she said. “It’s been used since the early ’40s.”

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