Westminster officials, worried about possible damage to the city's water infrastructure, repeatedly rebuffed attempts by former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle's lobbying firm to obtain a permit for Los Angeles County-based Signal Hill Petroleum to do underground tests for oil deposits.
It wasn't for lack of trying on Pringle's part, said Westminster City Councilwoman Diana Carey.
Curt Pringle & Associates, which lists the oil company as a client on its website, has been “nothing if not dogged” in trying to persuade city officials the testing is a “great thing,” Carey said.
“We've turned them down several times,” Carey said. “They're just not giving up.”
The concern among Westminster officials is that if testing were allowed, vibrations from the project could damage the water system's aging pipes. Sewer lines are also at risk, said a local utility official.
Ken Robbins, general manager of the Midway Sanitation District, which includes Westminster and a small unincorporated area, said he opposes the testing because of the potential for damage to the sewer system.
“The vibration could offset some joints and could crack some bells,” Robbins said.
Furthermore, Robbins said, Pringle himself revealed during a demonstration to local officials that the oil deposits are most likely in Garden Grove. Carey said that because the oil deposits are most likely outside Westminster, the city would bear the risk of the testing but receive none of the revenue from the oil.
Pringle did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Voice of OC reported Monday that Signal Hill Petroleum has been quietly obtaining permits to conduct the survey in seven Orange County cities with the hope of one day beginning an oil drilling operation in the central county.
Signal Hill officials acknowledge that the company is obtaining or has already received permits in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Stanton, Cypress, Buena Park and from the county for the unincorporated territories.
Officials from Anaheim and Stanton said they were not concerned that the testing would damage water lines.
The company's search comes at the height of a national debate over the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The oil drilling method has also been praised as having the potential to trigger an economic boom and create millions of jobs. Fracking releases oil and natural gas by injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock formations containing the fuel.
Dave Slater, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Signal Hill Petroleum, said in an interview that the company doesn't “envision” hydraulic fracturing in the county. But he didn't rule it out and went on to describe its potential for unlocking previously untapped oil deposits across the country.
Although she shares the concerns of environmentalists when it comes to fracking, Carey said the main reason behind the opposition among Westminster officials was a warning from the city's engineer that the testing would pose a substantial risk to 40-year-old water lines.
During the testing, heavy trucks would send sound waves underground on routes throughout the city to map its geology.
Robbins agreed and said the same threat exists for the city's sewer infrastructure, which consists of 34,435 connections and 174 miles of gravity sewer pipe. “It's almost like a musical rod. You can vibrate it, and it could take effect a mile down the road. The vibration will find the weak point, that's where the damage will be done,” he said.
The company had offered to indemnify Westminster for any damage incurred during the testing, Carey said. But according to Carey and Robbins, that isn't good enough, because if there is damage, the signs won't become apparent until perhaps years later, such as when a water line bursts or a sink hole appears.
From there the impacts of the testing only get worse, the public officials said.
Public officials would have to issue underground service alerts that specified the spots where the underground testing would occur and clean up after tests, thus consuming staff time and tax dollars.
“Your street's going to look like a Christmas tree. It's going to look like gang members went through and graffitied the whole street,” Robbins said. “It's a lot to think about. And I'm just probably scratching the tip of the iceberg.”
Debra Russell, director of community relations for Signal Hill, didn't return a phone call seeking comment on the Westminster situation. But in a previous interview she said that the company is very careful with underground utilities and works with public works departments. Signal Hill's tests have never damaged such infrastructure, she said.
Given the heightened concern over fracking and oil drilling in general, Russell and other company officials said they are conducting extensive outreach to the political leadership in Orange County cities as they seek permits. “Before we even hit the streets, we know everything there is to possibly know about the city and the community,” Russell said.
Yet council members in some cities said either they didn't know about the testing permits or had received only scant information until contacted by Voice of OC. Carey said that company officials wouldn't give her an answer when she asked whether the company would be fracking.
Robbins, meanwhile, said that the company never contacted the sanitation district. He found out about it from Carey only two hours before the survey demonstration in Garden Grove.
“That was odd,” he said.
Carey speculated that the only reason Curt Pringle & Associates contacted her is because she has a personal relationship with the former mayor. Carey, an educator, was invited to a demonstration of the project, with Pringle and officials from Caltech also attending. The company is planning to share the testing results, which provide underground mapping, with local universities.
“That's probably why they reached out to me. They probably thought they could sell me on the scientific aspect of it, but that didn't work,” Carey said. “I thought great, we're not going to destroy our city for a college experiment.”