Politics & Government

Oil hunt could include blasting in Calif. national monument

Zeke Wigglesworth / San Jose Mercury News

WASHINGTON — A subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum seeking to explore for oil and gas under one of the country's newest national monuments has outlined plans for its search that are likely to disturb the kangaroo rat, an endangered species whose prime habitat is precisely where the operations would take place.

In a filing with the Bureau of Land Management, Vintage Production said it wants to either shake the ground from above or touch off dynamite from below to map the subsurface it owns in the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument in central California's San Luis Obispo County.

The monument was created by presidential proclamation in 2001 just before President Clinton left office.

The monument is near the vast oilfields of Kern County, and there's some production in the steeper hills of the preserve. The proposed exploration is in the much more sensitive valley floor, where earlier exploratory drilling failed to find anything worth developing.

But technology has changed dramatically since those test holes, and the price of oil has zoomed to $110 a barrel.

Vintage Production said it wants to get to work in the monument as soon as it can, but the Bureau of Land Management has told the company that the environmental impact will have to be thoroughly studied by the company and approved by the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Endangered Species Act.

In its filing, Bakersfield-based Vintage proposed two options for exploring the mineral rights it retained when the preserve was first created in a joint state-federal partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

The first option would be to bring in four large vibrator trucks and associated equipment to shake the ground to set off waves through the subsurface. Sophisticated equipment strung out across the surface of the ground would map any caverns or crevasses deep below that might hold the promise for oil and gas.

The other option, the oil company said, is to drill holes 30 feet into the ground, pack them with 2.2 pounds of dynamite and set off explosions to create the sound waves.

Vintage Production said in its filing that it would take up to two weeks to complete the work. The company said workers will be trained in the guidelines and sensitive habitat of the monument grounds.

Environmentalists are divided on the project. While they're unhappy about the disturbance it's certain to cause, some see it as the only way to assign a worth to Vintage's oil rights so that the process can begin to either buy Vintage's rights or trade them for other federal oil properties.

Still, violent shaking or shallow underground explosions are certain to be bad news for the kangaroo rat. Some studies involving prairie dogs have concluded that the vibrator trucks can have long-lasting negative impact on colonies.

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