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Local News

Carpinteria Throws Wrench into Venoco’s Drilling Initiative Plan

City attorney challenges route to ballot and the lack of an environmental review.

Less than two weeks after Venoco Inc. filed a voter initiative with the city of Carpinteria on behalf of a proposed extended-reach drilling project, the city fired back with a 26-page complaint challenging the legality of the company’s future plans.

Venoco 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. The proposal, known as Project Paredon, could produce up to 11,000 barrels of oil a day, according to the project’s final environmental impact report.

If all goes as Venoco plans, the company says it will 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. An additional $200 million windfall could come to the community as a percentage of the $1 billion the state of California would gain from the deal.

But now city attorney Peter Brown is raising questions about the means by which Venoco is trying to achieve the end result. After several Carpinteria residents heard about Venoco’s project and potential contributions, they proposed an initiative that would allow voters to weigh in. On Feb. 2, the Carpinteria Community Initiative was turned in to the city.

Brown, however, says an initiative is not appropriate because it would circumvent the environmental review necessary for projects like Paredon. His complaint also says Venoco’s description of the project is vague and contains false statements and violates Carpinteria’s General Plan. Under state law, an initiative is only allowed to cover legislative acts, not specific projects, he said.

Venoco maintains it has done nothing illegal and should be allowed to let the initiative proceed.

“We would’ve never taken action had we not believed it was legal,” said Steve Greig, Venoco’s government relations director.

Greig said he was optimistic that the initiative will stand up to the legal challenge and be brought before voters later this year.

“We believe that if it’s what the citizens want, then our intent is to make sure that initiative is adopted,” Greig said.

Vernon Mesick, a Carpinteria resident and an early proponent of placing the initiative on the ballot, said the paperwork on Project Paredon had been in gridlock for too long. The project was submitted to the city for review back in 2004, but has been in the works for nearly a decade.

“It’s been sitting there a long time,” said Mesick, who adds that he’s talked to people for and against the project, and that he thinks a vote would be best.

“I’d like to see people have a chance to say what they feel,” he said. “This is the democratic way, to see what the majority of the people want.”

Mesick said he’s studied the project thoroughly and is supportive because it would reduce dependence on foreign oil and that the city would gain from the amount of money Venoco has promised to contribute if it succeeds.

But Brown’s complaint speaks differently of the royalties Venoco has promised. He says residents aren’t guaranteed to receive any of the royalties of the project, which the State Lands Commission controls and could send anywhere in California. Venoco would have to obtain a permit and the commission would have to agree to give the funds to Carpinteria.

“Since the royalty payments are the primary source of benefit for the Carpinteria community under the initiative, its misleading description could result in the voters obtaining a contract for which they did not bargain,” the complaint said.

The complaint also says the initiative authorizes any Venoco activity, offshore and onshore, and lacks the project description required to tell voters what they’d be approving.

The city of Carpinteria doesn’t have a position on the project yet and the complaint will be addressed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on April 7. Until then, a stay of obligation from preparing the title ballot and summary has been issued.

But Greig says the entire community has expressed interest in voting on the issue and, although it’s too early for specifics, such as if the initiative’s language will be beefed up for the ballot, his staff would be looking over the complaint to weigh its options.

“Our hope is that we can move forward,” he said.

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