Air Force weighs ‘slant drilling’ to tap offshore oil from Vandenberg

The view south from a ridgeline on the northern edge of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Environmental groups oppose a plan that would allow land-based drilling at Vandenberg.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Air Force will consider leasing land on Vandenberg Air Force Base for private companies to extract offshore oil and gas from land-based drills on the central California coast.

The proposal, opposed by environmental groups, would require the first new offshore lease in state waters since the 1960s, said Mark Meier, chief counsel for the State Lands Commission. It would allow companies to use onshore equipment with extended-reach “slant drilling” technology to reach offshore deposits.


Sunset Exploration and Exxon Mobil recently asked the Air Force to review their proposal to use the technology for an oil and gas drilling project on the base near Lompoc, Air Force officials said Wednesday.

Over the next several months, the military will study whether the new type of drilling is compatible with the base’s space and satellite-launching missions and determine whether it is “economically, environmentally and politically feasible,” the Air Force said in a written statement.

“Initial information obtained by the Air Force indicates there may be potential for new technology slant drilling capable of targeting oil deposits off Vandenberg Air Force Base’s coastline from locations with minimal or mitigable mission/environmental impacts,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Williams, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command.

Environmental groups have long fought attempts to open the California coast to new drilling and argue that land-based drilling can pose many of the same risks to marine life as offshore operations.

“We have tremendous concerns about their proposal,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. “This would be a new oil drilling project along a very biologically rich and sensitive area of the California coast. It would threaten migrating whales and other important species with oil spills and other impacts that result from offshore oil drilling.”

Sunset Exploration President Bob Nunn said the land-based drilling operation the company has proposed would fully avoid the marine environment, with its drill bit one-half mile below the seafloor. “It’s the antithesis of offshore drilling,” he said.

Sunset and Exxon have sought for years to drill for oil from the base, but Santa Barbara County deemed their application incomplete in 2006 because the Air Force did not sign off on it.

U.S. law allows the military to lease land for oil development, and Vandenberg has five active oil wells, Air Force officials said.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek), California’s former lieutenant governor, and State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson are among the elected officials who have urged the Air Force to move forward with Sunset Exploration’s drilling project.

To proceed, the project would need approval from the Air Force, the State Lands Commission, Santa Barbara County and the California Coastal Commission.

California regulators rejected a previous proposal to drill for oil near the base from an offshore rig over concerns it would harm the marine environment.

Last month, U.S. House Republicans launched a new effort to open federal waters off California to drilling, reviving an idea that has been controversial since a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara devastated the coast.

California has 21 oil and gas leases in production, some of them using land-based slant drilling equipment, said Meier of the Lands Commission. The state has four offshore oil platforms: three near Huntington Beach and one off Santa Barbara County, though others sit in federal waters within sight of shore.