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Venoco Initiative Drive Gives a New Slant to Project Approvals

A strategic drilling proposal emphasizes the community revenue windfall. Will it work?

Venoco Inc.'s plans for an extended-reach operation into the Santa Barbara Channel include a lighthouse-style structure, like this photo illustration, to disguise its drilling equipment.
Venoco’s plans for an extended-reach operation into the Santa Barbara Channel include a lighthouse-style structure, like this photo illustration, to disguise its drilling equipment. (Venoco Inc. photo illustration)

Almost everywhere one looks these days, there seems to be a financial calamity, which includes cash-strapped California and local communities in similarly dire straits. Amid that climate, Carpinteria voters may get a chance this summer to put themselves in a position to collect a budgetary windfall. With a catch.

Venoco Inc. wants to install a 140-foot drilling rig at its Dump Road processing facility to enable extended-reach, or slant, drilling, which would allow access to oil and natural gas in the Santa Barbara Channel without using an offshore platform. If the venture proves successful, Venoco has promised to contribute $1 million a year for up to five years to the Carpinteria Education Foundation and would donate 22 acres of land on its 55-acre Dump Road parcel to be designated as open space. California’s largesse from the project is even more impressive and would return $200 million to Carpinteria as a percentage of the $1 billion the state would gain from the deal.

The project has been around nearly a decade, since Venoco purchased the operation from Chevron in 1999, and has made its way through the review process known as Project Paredon. After Venoco spent a year seeking community input on the project, many expressed interest in voting on Paredon, said Steve Greig, the company’s government relations director. Based on that feedback, Venoco beefed up Project Paredon to include contributions to Carpinteria schools and open space, and created the Carpinteria Community Initiative.

On Monday, Venoco filed a voter initiative at City Hall on behalf of its proposal. Local residents will begin collecting signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. To qualify, signatures must be collected from at least 15 percent of the city’s registered voters within 180 days.

Not everyone is a fan, however. Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channel Keeper, said she’s been following the project since it went before the Carpinteria Planning Commission last May, when observers expressed concern about the environmental impacts. She said she has yet to see a final environmental impact report circulated for Project Paredon and has concerns that a ballot initiative might replace legal procedure.

“If they’re trying to circumvent the policy process, then that’s not a good thing,” Redmond said.

Channel Keeper does not have a stance on the issue of slant drilling yet, she said, and the nonprofit organization works on a case-by-case basis.

“For the most part, the mitigations that were identified in the EIR that people had concerns about are mentioned in the initiative,” Greig said.

Slant-drilling technology has been around for decades, but advancements have been made in how far away offshore reserves can be accessed.

“The technology has allowed us to go much further away, which greatly minimizes the risk,” Grieg said.

The new rig would drill down nearly 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and out several miles. Grieg said Venoco would know the composition of the reserve before it begins drilling so there’s little danger it would run into hydrogen sulfide, or sour gas.

“It’s the same as the gas that you burn from your home,” Grieg said.

The rig would be housed in a facade similar to that of a lighthouse to curtail noise and disguise its use.

After the signatures on the initiative are verified, a special election will be scheduled, likely for this summer. City Councilwoman Kathleen Reddington said voters must weigh for themselves the merits of the proposal and any environmental trade-offs for the community.

“I trust that the voters of Carpinteria will scrutinize any ballot initiative that comes before them,” she said.

In addition to its Carpinteria project, Venoco has an oil and gas processing facility in western Goleta. Because the company leases that offshore land from UCSB and is subject to overlapping jurisdictions, a slant drilling operation there would be infeasible.

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