The Bureau of Land Management announced in March that oil drilling would resume within the Carrizo Plain National Monument, land that is significant to more than a dozen tribes representing three tribal cultural groups in central California.
The monument, located about 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has been a major travel route and important cultural and material resource for the Chumash, Salinan and Yokut peoples for more than 10,000 years. It was named a national monument in 2001 to protect cultural and environmental assets in the region, but two small oil fields discovered in 1948 were still allowed to operate on the southwestern edge of the monument.
While the well site in question hasn’t produced any oil in decades, BLM has given the greenlight to E&B Natural Resources ― a firm that specializes in “revitalizing” old oil fields using recently-developed extraction technology ― to operate at the site. The company had first sought to open a new well on an existing site within the grandfathered fields six years ago, and was also given permission to construct a new pipeline to convey crude to a collection site, according to the permit.
“I gasped out loud when I heard about this,” said Mona Tucker, the chairwoman of the yak tityu tityu yak tilhini Northern Chumash Tribe. “It’s terrifying ― there are no words to describe how I feel about this. Disheartening is the mildest word I can think of.”
The monument dodged the fate of better-known monuments such as Bears Ears, which the Trump administration reduced in size by more than 85 percent in 2017. But some tribal members fear that Carrizo Plain is under a stealth attack that could destroy its cultural and ecological treasures.
“The Carrizo Plain along the Temblor Range was an important route for our ancestors during gathering of grasses, minerals and travels over to Tulare-Yokut lands,” said Xolon Salinan Tribal Chair Karen White. “It’s a beautiful place for all people.”
Painted Rock, a large outcropping on the plain and the site of one of the world’s most important Native rock art, “is very sacred to us,” said Michael Khus-Zarate, a member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation who’s served as the chairman of the monument’s Native American advisory committee. “We have held ceremonies for thousands of years there.” Khus-Zarate and other Native people spent hundreds of hours hammering out a cultural resource management plan to protect the many cultural sites on the Carrizo Plain.
The monument is so packed with undiscovered cultural assets that visitors are advised about what to do if they “self-discover” a site. Less than 10 percent of the monument has been assessed for cultural or archaeological artifacts, said BLM spokeswoman Serena Baker.
Bordered by the Caliente Mountains to the southwest, and the Temblor Range and San Andreas Fault to the east, the Carrizo Plain is the state’s largest remaining grassland, known as California’s “Serengeti.” The Nature Conservancy, which manages the monument in partnership with BLM and the California Fish and Wildlife Department, notes that the survival of many species depend on the monument being conserved.
The region harbors 13 threatened or endangered animal species, including the California condor. Another 24 species are under pressure from human development, and if conservation efforts aren’t successful, they too will be at risk of extinction. The plain is also home to 23 rare, threatened or endangered plant species. Pronghorn antelope and tule elk have been reintroduced to the area. And, in years with a wet winter, the spring wildflower show draws admirers from across the state.
But advocates for the monument fear the situation is about to change. On Jan. 31, BLM issued a new policy streamlining oil and gas leases on 564 million acres of public land. Among other changes, stakeholders have just 10 days to file a protest, down from 30 days in the past. And BLM doesn’t make it easy for the public to keep track of lease activity, said Jeff Kuyper, the executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch, a nonprofit that monitors and helps protect natural lands in California’s Central Coast.
Federal law gives BLM the authority to lease both federal land and certain state and private lands where the federal government holds mineral rights. Indian lands such as reservations are not subject to BLM leasing. BLM must also abide by resource management plans and environmental and cultural protections laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act when issuing new leases. The proclamation that created Carrizo Plain National Monument allowed existing oil and gas leases and grazing permits, known as “valid existing rights,” to continue in operation.
Tucker and Khus-Zarate said they received no advance notice that BLM was going to grant the request for the new well within the Carrizo Plain. They are also a bit puzzled by E&B’s new plan, since just two years ago the company sought, and gained, permission to cap the older well on the well site and restore the land to its natural condition.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that only a few of the tribes with ties to the Carrizo Plain are federally recognized. The tribes Khus-Zarate, Tucker and White belong to are not. Attempts to reach the tribes that are federally recognized for comment were not successful.
Tribal and environmental groups are concerned about the methods that will be used to produce oil in a field that only produces 125 barrels a day and in a well that hasn’t produced anything in more than five decades. One method used is a procedure called “water flooding,” in which nonpotable water is injected into the well to raise overall fluid pressures and push the oil up to where it can be pumped out, said Wayne Beninger, a petroleum engineer and geologist who’s not involved with this project.
Ted Cordova, a spokesman for E&B, said that while there is an existing water injection well on the site, the company has no plans to use water flooding to extract oil in the new well. “During the production process, oil, gas and water get extracted from the oilfield and then are separated,” Cordova said. “The produced water gets cleaned and then recycled by injection back into the oilfield where it originally came from.”
Los Padres Forest Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an appeal on April 18 to stop the permit process for the well site. But, they also had to sue to force BLM to release documents covered under the Freedom of Information Act. An appeal hearing was held June 11, and the permit is currently under review at the California state BLM office.
Khus-Zarate and Kuyper say that the monument’s Native American advisory committee, which could have weighed in on the permit request, has been inactive since 2014, and neither knows why. Khus-Zarate said that the Carrizo Plain Monument Advisory Committee’s charter has yet to be renewed, despite language in the monument’s management plan that outlines the committee’s role.
BLM spokeswoman Baker claimed both committees are in operation, and members are in the process of being appointed or reappointed. Baker noted that the well site is on the other side of the Caliente Mountains from Painted Rock, about 10 miles away as the crow flies, and said that BLM will honor its promise to protect the monument’s cultural sites and facilitate access for religious, cultural and tribal events.
“The BLM respects the ties that Native and traditional communities have to public lands and coordinates with all Native American people, regardless if they identify themselves with a federally recognized or non-federally recognized tribe,” she said.
But Khus-Zarate and Tucker are wary of additional development at the site. “[The well] may be a minimal threat, but it’s the first time we’ve seen a permit issued to drill since the monument was established in 2001,” Khus-Zarate said. “Is this going to embolden other energy developers to take another look at Carrizo?”
In addition to oil, the plain contains phosphate, an essential component in fertilizer, and sodium sulfate. “The public has no control over exploiting mineral resources,” said Khus-Zarate. “The [Trump] administration isn’t concerned with protection.” While he trusts local BLM staff to do their best, “they take orders from D.C.”
Tucker wants the agency to cease issuing drilling permits altogether. “One inch drilled is too deep,” she said. “One inch of new pipeline is too long.”