In a first step to opening new forest land to oil drilling, the U.S. Forest Service has launched an environmental study of all potential oil fields in the Los Padres National Forest that are not designated as protected wilderness.
The 18-month study will focus on potentially harmful effects of oil drilling on wildlife habitat, endangered species and the purity of water draining from the forest land that stretches from northern Ventura County to Monterey County.
In Ventura County, the Forest Service has identified several promising oil fields including a swath of land that reaches from the Upper Ojai Valley to Lake Piru, another crescent-shaped band just north of Lake Casitas and two other areas deep in the forest off California 33 north of Ojai.
More than half of the national forest land in Ventura County is protected from mining as the Sespe Wilderness and the Matilija Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. But oil companies have wells in other parts of the forest and have shown interest in expanding their operations.
David W. Dahl, supervisor of the Los Padres National Forest, emphasized that the study will only identify those areas suitable for new oil and gas leases. Any new drilling, he said, remains years away.
"There is a certain amount of potential for oil in these areas," Dahl said. The study, he said, will "give fair warning to any oil company that there are the environmental concerns in those areas."
If the Forest Service decides to issue any new oil and gas leases, Dahl said, there would be a separate environmental study on each drilling project before any oil company breaks ground.
The Forest Service's study brought immediate praise from the oil industry for getting started on long-stalled requests for oil exploration. It also drew criticism from environmentalists concerned about the county's air pollution and new threats to wildlife habitat.
"We are losing habitat all over the lot and I hate to see any more go," said Cynthia Leake, vice president of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County.
Protective of their water supplies, officials at the Casitas Municipal Water District are poring over topographical maps to see if the potential new oil fields could contaminate drinking water for residents of Ojai and west Ventura.
Casitas has managed to have thousands of acres of national forest land set off-limits to drilling over the years to protect the pristine watershed that drains into Lake Casitas, said John Johnson, the district's general manager.
Johnson predicted that if Casitas officials determine there is a new threat, the agency will take action. "It has been our district policy to do everything needed to protect the watershed," he said.
Frank Holmes, coastal coordinator with the Western States Petroleum Assn., said he was pleased the Forest Service has begun to evaluate the prospects for oil production in the Los Padres forest.
"There are a lot of oil and gas resources within Ventura County on federal lands that haven't been accessible for some time," Holmes said. "This is a good first step to evaluate those lands."
The Forest Service has had 55 unresolved applications for oil leases on Los Padres land since 1987, said Al Hess, the service's local oil and gas specialist.
The applications got tied up by the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987, which directed the Forest Service first to conduct studies of all available land for oil leasing.
The Forest Service had planned to do this environmental study years ago, but it was delayed by a new law that designated another 400,000 acres as wilderness and by a lack of funding from Congress. Hess expected a final draft to be completed by March, 1997.
The demand for oil drilling on forest land has fallen in recent years with plummeting oil prices. "The last well was drilled in 1989," Hess said. "There hasn't been one since, mainly because the cost of oil has not made it economical to drill."
Los Padres is the only national forest in California that has commercial oil and natural gas wells. About 95% of the wells are concentrated a few miles north of Fillmore in an area known as the Sespe oil fields.
The Forest Service also leases land to oil companies in the Upper Ojai Valley and in the Cuyama oil fields in the Cuyama Valley in northwestern Santa Barbara County.
The U.S. Forest Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a mission to coordinate timber harvesting and mining on federally owned forests. The government takes in 16.5% in royalties on every barrel.
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The U.S. Forest Service will unveil its study at two public meetings in Ventura County: 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chuchupate Ranger Station on Lockwood Valley Road just west of Frazier Park; and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at De Anza Middle School, 2060 Cameron St., Ventura. For more information, call 681-2794.