How Residents of One California County Are Taking on Big Oil

San Luis Obispo is a biologically unique and diverse county on the central coast of California, renowned for its magnificent coastline, pine and oak-covered mountains, and extensive vineyards and wineries. The county has evolved into a world-class tourist destination, with an annual $1.6 billion tourist economy, over $960 million in agriculture production, and a large state university and growing tech industry.

The county overlies the deep and convoluted Monterey Shale formation, where shallow expressions of tar-sands harboring low-grade heavy crude oil placed our county on the radar of petroleum wildcatters for more than 100 years along with Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties. As the result of this attraction, San Luis Obispo has suffered over a century of petroleum disasters including massive explosions, spills, leaks and accidents totaling millions of gallons of oil and in one case requiring the total replacement of the small beach village Avila at San Luis Bay.

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A tank farm fire in 1926.

In the past 30 years, oil supplies, production and transportation have diminished significantly. Currently, the county has one moderately sized production field 2.4 miles from the ocean at Pismo Beach (currently operated by Sentinal Peak Resources, a Colorado company), and one tar-grade oil refinery on the beach at Nipomo Dunes near the city of Oceano (operated by Phillips 66, a Texas company).

Because our local oil is dirty, a heavy crude tar-sand product which needs cyclic or steam flood injection to render it fluid enough for pumping, it's expensive to extract and refine, requiring nearly twice the energy to produce a barrel when compared to cleaner and less viscous resources in other regions.


At least 80 plumes of diluent, associated with leaks in pipelines that may have lasted for decades, were detected in and near the Guadalupe Oil Field at the Nipomo Dunes. These leaks have released an estimated 12 million gallons of diluent into the dunes, beach, groundwater and Pacific Ocean.

In 2014, Phillips 66 proposed to build a crude oil train terminal at its Nipomo refinery and import Albert a tar sand oil for reining. A countywide grassroots opposition movement began, spearheaded by residents in an upper-middle class, golf-centered retirement community located next to the refinery. Over nearly three years requiring months of hearings and an environmental impact report that identified 13 significant negative impacts, the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors narrowly denied the project.

During this same period, Freeport-McMoRan, the prior operator of the Arroyo Grande Oil Field (AGOF), proposed a 481 well expansion of its existing 238 well cyclic and flood-steam oil extraction operation located just upstream from the Pismo Beach. At issue are unpermitted wastewater injection wells at the site and the necessity for an EPA aquifer exemption to expand the operation. In classic form, Freeport-McMoRan sold their operation, with the presumed added-value of a pending expansion approval, to Colorado operator Sentinal Peak Resources.

Frustrated with state and federal permitting and oversight agencies, SLO County Board of Supervisors, and inspired by a recently successful citizens’ initiative in Monterey County to ban new oil wells, fracking and underground injection of toxic oil wastewater, a new coalition was formed in August 2017. This new coalition includes water protectors, oil infrastructure blockers and climate change activists.

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San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon signing the initiative.

The Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County's mission is clear: to qualify a citizens’ initiative that protects our limited coastal water supply, bans all new petroleum extraction in our county, and moves the county closer to a renewable energy economy as mandated by county leaders.

First, protecting our precious and increasingly scarce water resources from the threats posed by extreme petroleum extraction practices, such as fracking, acidizing, and deep injection of toxic wastewater is the core local resource preservation goal. We are entering our sixth year of extreme drought and local oil operations pump 22 barrels of water for every barrel of recovered oil. Current production of 1000 barrels a day of oil could increase, with pending approval, to 10,000 barrels with an additional 481 wells and 220,000 barrels (9,240,000 gallons) of wastewater per day, 15 percent of which is re-injected into the local aquifer as tainted waste.

Second, conserving local oil resources connects our initiative to adopted County General Plan Policies and Goals, as well as specific Climate Action Plans mandated by the State of California. Reductions of greenhouse gases and transition to renewable energy sources are keystones in local planning documents and our initiative concretely makes this manifest by sequestering local oil.

Our county overlies the Monterey Shale formation, one of the largest oil reserves in the United States. Unlike the horizontal beds of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, which are relatively easy to frack, the Monterey Shale is massively convoluted by tectonics of the Pacific plates, and lies deep underground (from 5,000-16,000 feet). Currently, there is no fracking in our county and we often hear the argument that, therefore, there is no problem. However, as many others have learned, once fracking starts it is very difficult to stop. Our objective is to prevent it from ever happening here by changing the Land Use Element of the General Plan to outlaw petroleum extraction.

Third, this initiative, put forth by the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, aligns us with like-minded groups across our state, country and planet—groups that are actively working to lessen the impacts of global climate change, that want to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases significantly, and that act in a spirit of empowerment to create the change locally which they want to see globally.

In neighboring Monterey County, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell oil companies spent $5.5 million to defeat a citizen’s initiative to ban new wells and fracking. When the citizens won with 56 percent of the vote in favor of the ban, Big Oil sued them in superior court, and this process continues in the state appeals court.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and are forging new legal ground in the local fight to challenge fossil fuel infrastructure. Support for this effort can come in many forms. To learn more about how you can help, visit the Coalition website or contact me directly.

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