Planning commission approves Richgrove gas and oil well

Ben Irwin

Kebo Oil and Gas plans for 5,000-foot oil well at former county landfill

TULARE COUNTY – Kebo Oil and Gas went before the Tulare County Planning Commission on Dec. 9 to obtain a special use permit for an exploratory gas and oil well at 219 Richgrove Drive, three miles north of the town of Richgrove. The commission approved the permit unanimously in a 7-0 vote, albeit some questions over the environmental impact are still outstanding.

The proposed drilling location is on the site of the former county landfill, 0.12 miles north of the White River Channel.

Shannon Peacock of Booher Consulting, LLC, who represented the applicant of the project, joined the planning commission meeting via Zoom to answer questions regarding the 5,000-foot exploratory well. Maria McElroy, planning commission vice chair, asked Peacock several questions about water contamination—McElroy acknowledged she is not a “non-oil person” who’s “not into oil exploration as a career”—to which Peacock responded regulations put in place by California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, now called CalGEM, would prevent anything from happening to drinking water.

Wade Nollkamper, a geologist also speaking on behalf of the exploratory well project at the county planning commission meeting, said they will be drilling for high-gravity Buena Vista-grade oil at the 5,000-foot exploratory well.

“It’s a good light oil,” Nollkamper said.

Nollkamper fielded questions from the planning commission about sealing water tables, and said any viable water tables drilled through on the way down to their target would be sealed with cement surface casing. He also addressed the planning commission’s concerns about water contamination, ensuring the commission that at 5,000 feet any water being produced in conjunction with the oil would be salt water, which would have to be hauled off and disposed of in a deep disposal well.

“We can’t put that stuff on the ground, we can’t evaporate it, it has to be hauled off,” Nollkamper said. “It will be separated on location, you have separation facilities from the oil, then you take your salt water and you haul it off to deep disposal.”

Shortly after answering McElroy’s initial questions, Peacock left the call due to technical difficulties regarding her speakers. McElroys continued to question the prosepect of water contamination, to which assistant director of economic development and planning Aaron Bock stepped in.

“The oil itself—not to be too complacent about it—but oil itself isn’t toxic, that would immediately kill you,” Bock said. “The people out at the coast would tell you [that] you can drink it for 70 years and not have any toxic effects. In our experience from the deer creek oil field where we put in 10 [wells], it’s how they clean it, when they separate the oil from the water that would be the problem. So that’s where the control has to occur.”

Oil is in fact toxic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, one of the government agencies involved in the response to the 2010 collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that killed 11 Americans and led to the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. They define crude oil as toxic because it causes living things harm in two different ways: physical and biochemical.

The technical cause of the Deepwater Horizon collapse was the “blowout protector” on the exploratory oil rig failed after a pulse of gas caused the drill pipe to buckle, allowing gas to reach the drill rig, causing a massive and continuous explosion. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, a non-partisan body charged by President Obama with providing a thorough analysis and impartial judgment, released a detailed 398-page report on their six-month intensive effort, which concluded:

“The well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined to overwhelm the safeguards meant to prevent just such an event from happening. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure—a failure of management. Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them.”

The report also states that those identifiable mistakes “reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.”

According to the California Environmental Protection Agency’s State Water Resources Control Board, in 2017 approximately 39,000 acre-feet of produced water—water that is brought to the surface during oil and gas production activities—was blended in Kern and Tulare Counties to irrigate approximately 90,000 acres of cropland, a 30-plus-year practice some water quality advocates have called to ban entirely.

Tulare County has some of the worst water in the state—107,922 people have unsafe drinking water according to State Water Resources Board data from Community Water Center, a Visalia non-profit working for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy in California.

The data shows Richgrove Community Services District, which supplies water to 1,617 people in the city of Richgrove and surrounding areas in Tulare County, has been cited nine times for violating water safety compliance standards from 2012-2020. Four of those violations were for 1,2,3-trichloropropane contamination, a compound associated with hazardous waste sites. The most recent violation was issued by the state on April 1, 2020, for being 140% in excess of 1,2,3-trichloropropane levels.

No questions were raised during the 60-second opportunity for call-ins for public comment, nor did the planning commission have any questions at the Dec. 9 meeting regarding the safety of drilling for oil on a landfill.

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