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The oil exploration company planning to sue San Benito County over the anti-fracking measure that voters passed on Nov. 4 portrays itself as a victim unfairly being denied access to oil worth at least $1.2 billion.

What Citadel Exploration doesn’t mention, and what wasn’t mentioned in initial TV news reports on the lawsuit threat, is that its exploration efforts were halted by a Monterey judge this summer because it had not performed adequate environmental studies.

Oil and gas well profiled on sunset sky

In a ruling reported earlier by the Partisan and others, Monterey Superior Court Judge Tom Wills wrote that San Benito Counthy officials had not seriously contemplated the “numerous opportunities for toxic spills” at the Indian Wells project, part of the company’s “Project Indian.” Judge Lydia Villarreal had earlier ruled that the project could continue but Wills said no.

Wills agreed with the Center for Biological Diversity’s view that a complete environmental impact report was needed for 15 test wells. The center’s lawsuit focuses on whether an operator is required to analyze just the isolated repercussions of the test of individual wells or the impact of the full potential development. Wills determined the review needed to focus on the larger project.

Citadel and other oil companies spent more than $2 million to unsuccessfully oppose the Measure J initiative, which 58 percent of county voters supported on election day. Mendocino County voters passed a similar ban but another was rejected in Santa Barbara County.

In San Benito, the opposition campaign was also backed strongly by farmers who hoped to sell rights to oil below their fields. Campaign advertising hammered on the message that Measure J would ban fracking in San Benito County even though there was no fracking in San Benito County, an apparent effort to make the measure sound frivolous. While Citadel maintains that its “thermal injection” process for finding oil does not constitute fracking, the measure is broad enough to include the technology.

Citadel signaled its next step the day after the election by filing an 8-K form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In it, the company said Measure J amounted to a regulatory taking and said it would ask the county to “compensate the company for the diminished value at the Indian Oil Field based on the reasonable Unrisked Resource Potential the property would ultimately yield, or allow Citadel to proceed with full field development and steam injection under the exemption ordinance.”

It followed up the next day with a letter to the county saying the San Benito wells could yield between 20 million and 40 million barrels of oil

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A Monterey County Superior Court judge—not Lydia Villarreal–has ruled that San Benito County violated state environmental protections when it unlawfully approved an steam-injection oil drilling project that could affect hundreds of wells in the Salinas Valley watershed.

The ruling came from Judge Tom Wills, who wrote that San Benito officials had not seriously contemplated the “numerous opportunities for toxic spills” at the Indian Wells project.

Although Monterey County Judge Lydia Villarreal has been seen as the court’s keenest enforcer of environmental protection regulations, she had ruled earlier that limited testing of the Citadel Exploration Inc. wells could proceed near Pinnacles National Park.

Wills disagreed in the recent ruling, siding with the Center for Biological Diversity’s view that a complete environmental impact report was needed for 15 test wells. The suit centers on the issue of whether an operator is required to analyze just the isolated repercussions of the test of individual wells or the impact of the full potential development. Wills determined the review needed to focus on the larger project.

“There is evidence in the record that Citadel planned to drill ‘hundreds’ of wells at the site if the pilot project demonstrated commercial viability,” Wills wrote in a ruling first reported by the Monterey County Weekly.

The Indian Wells project would use cyclic steam injection, a water-intensive and potentially polluting form of oil extraction. The court agreed that San Benito County unlawfully failed to consider development of the oil field beyond the initial 15 “pilot” wells in the challenged approval as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The court also found that the county failed to properly analyze the huge water usage, water pollution risks, greenhouse gas emissions, and threats to the California condor — even from the initial 15 well approval.

“This legal victory helps protect California’s water, wildlife and climate from dangerous new oil development,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It makes no sense to fast-track dirty and risky new oil projects when it’s painfully obvious we have to shift to clean energy sources to respond to the climate crisis.”

The lawsuit says the project site drains to the Salinas River and is an important foraging habitat for the California condor.

“This project could turn this beautiful area into a massive new oil field,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, which represents the plaintiff.

According to a Center for Biological Diversity news release, cyclic steam injection — also known as “huff-and-puff” — is an oil-extraction technique applied to heavy-oil reservoirs. During the process, the operator injects steam at very high temperature and pressure into the well. The well is then sealed, allowing the steam to heat up the surrounding formation, which thins the heavy oil so it can more easily flow toward, through and out of the well.

The process is extremely energy intensive and can cause well failure, shifting and buckling of the ground, and unexpected eruptions of fluid and steam from the ground, according to the center.

San Benito County voters are scheduled in November to consider an initiative that would prohibit high-intensity petroleum operations, including cyclic steam injection and fracking, throughout the county.

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