Night and Day

As the planet turns on its axis and captive humanity experiences a turning towards or away from our distant sun, night engulfs day and day rolls back the night. These diurnal ecotones of dawn and dusk allow for particular moments of reflection uninflected by either the full presence or absence of light - opportunities perhaps, to investigate grey areas of an otherwise manichean life. At other times they simply provide rich aesthetic experiences or space in which to prepare for the flicking of the solar switch. Often, at these moments of luminary flux, great beauty is pierced by pedestrian reality.

In the gloaming, color leaches out of the landscape turning oaks an inky black and shades of grey are all that's left to describe the land. Above, there is a monotone firmament, except to the west where, at the end of an almost infinite layering of dissolving ink washes - sfumato - there are the pinks and apricots of an early evening sky lightly bruised with clouds. Walking down Koenigstein, entranced by this blurred edge between light and dark, two flickering lights semaphored the arrival of the night - natural gas flares in the Arco Oil field half way up the the Sulphur Mountain escarpment across from the Summit.

My mind has been on the development of the local oil-fields recently. First, Marianne Ratcliff alerted her neighbors that Mirada Oil, a small operator with a number of wells between Koenigstein and Thomas Aquinas, has applied to ammend their County Conditional Use Permit. They are requesting that the document be modified to allow a further five wells (from 6 to 11) on their Harth lease which is located in the hills north of Arco's Silver Thread facility above the Painted Pony petting zoo on the 150. Then, Alasdair Coyne, in his invaluable newsletter for the Keep The Sespe Wild and Free Committee (which he co-founded and now spearheads), wrote a piece titled Fracking in The Sespe in the Winter 2012-2013 issue.

Maryanne and I attended the County Hearing on March 21 which focused on the Planning Director's Staff Report which had set Mirada's application on a glide path towards approval by Kim Prillheart, the County's Planning Director. Key to facilitating approval of this expansion of drilling activity was the staff decision not to require either a new Mitigated Negative Declaration or an Environmental Impact Report - a decision predicated on the notion that this was a minor modification to the original CUP granted in 1985, that there will be no significant additional impacts to the environment, and that no new information of substantial importance on the project's environmental effect has been uncovered since 1985.

The gallery of some 15 local residents expressed their disdain for these Pollyanna assumptions. History, is perhaps, on their side. Our immediate neighbor on Koenigstein, John Whitman, successfully challenged the granting of a CUP to Phoenix Corporation who planned to drill a single exploratory well within a quarter mile of his home (the old dude ranch Rancho del Oso) back in 1975. Four years later he won on appeal to Ventura's Supreme Court.

I called John the day before the hearing and offered to drive him to the County offices. He did not return my call but the next day his son Andrew, a lawyer, was there to represent the family's interests. His call to his father had also been unreturned, but he referenced John's erstwhile activism and expressed alarm that the County was again ignoring cumulative environmental impacts - the very issue that prompted the Appeals Court to overturn the C.U.P. granted to Phoenix by Ventura County.

I suspect that nowadays no public hearing which has as its focus the activities of the oil and gas industry avoids the hysteria surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Mirada's proposed extraction program does not include fracking, but we nevertheless listened to an Ojai resident who drove twenty miles to the meeting to deliver an emotional tirade based on the film Gasland, an alarmist and largely discredited account of the horrors of fracking documented by Josh Fox. Alasdair, in his analysis of the activity in the Sespe, makes the sensible point that this potentially hazardous technology requires firm State regulation. Several bills are making their way through the California legislature promising just such control.

California's Monterey Shale formation was the elephant in the Hearing Room, but the palavering pachyderm was eventually called out by Marianne. While having nothing to do with the case at hand, this geological formation looms large over the energy future of both California and the United States; it is estimated that it contains some 400 billion barrels of oil - although less than five percent of it is accessible through today's drilling technologies. Even so, this 15 billion bbl. represents ten years of Saudi Arabia's output and could radically impact both our dependence on foreign oil and the local economy.

Because hydraulic fracturing is effective in extracting oil and gas from shale it will be the preferred technology as this resource comes on-line. Marianne expressed a generalized unease that Ventura's part in this bonanza would generate deleterious environmental impacts. Alasdair points out that part of the Monterey shale sits under the Los Padres National Park which will require stringent review by the National Forest Service, but that other areas under private ownership, outside of the park or as in-holdings, will potentially allow for faster development.

These great reservoirs of oil that lie beneath the land represent the solar energy beamed down to the Earth between 300 and  360 million years ago in strict accord with the diurnal patterns that continue to govern the circadian rhythms of all animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. That energy now enables us to turn night into day, traverse great and small distances at extraordinary speeds; heat our built environments independently of the exterior weather, grow vast amounts of food and cook it at will. The word transformational barely begins to cover it. As I point out in Moai, it has enabled the Modern World.

In the Hearing Room, under the faint buzz of fluorescent lights fueled by a long ago sun, we argued about the form and propriety of sucking more oil out of the bowels of the earth. Our mostly pasty faces were by turns amused, annoyed and fiercely attentive to the process of our County administration and the extemporizations of its punctilious representatives and our querulous neighbors.

Perhaps I alone harbored memories of that morning's dawn in the chaparral - somewhere above the Ojai Oil Field, the marine layer still settled densely over Ojai, the sun half an hour away from splashing the dark Nordhoff ridge off in the distance, with thoughts only of choosing my next step over the still, grey land.