TWENTY-POINT-FOUR ACRES: That’s how much land the U.S. Forest Service determined would be occupied by oil and gas companies under last fall’s plan to expand mineral extraction in the nearly 2 million-acre Los Padres National Forest. “It doesn’t seem like much,” admits Jeff Kuyper of the environmental group Los Padres Forest Watch, especially when you consider that the Forest Service looked at a potential 750,000 acres. But there’s one problem with that little number, says Kuyper:

“It’s grossly inaccurate.”

The 20.4 figure is one of the reasons Kuyper’s group, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, served the federal government notice last week that they intend to sue if the feds fail to make significant changes to the oil and gas plan. There are others: the Forest Service failed to adequately assess the plan’s impact on endangered steelhead trout, the plan was written before U.S. Fish and Wildlife had agreed upon critical habitat for the endangered California red-legged frog, and biologists neglected to include “cumulative effects” in their studies. But the discrepancy in that acreage estimate gets to the heart of environmentalists’ concerns about oil drilling in the Los Padres: What looks reasonable in a written report may prove disastrous in practice.

Forest Service officials got their 20.4 figure from a report written in 1993, says Kuyper, written by people who never imagined what the oil industry would resort to in 2006. “It tried to estimate how much oil would be recovered under what they call ‘a reasonable foreseeable development scenario,’?” says Kuyper. “It looked at how easy the oil would be to suck out of the ground. It looked at geology and economics and the price of oil. And back in 1993, when the report was made, they estimated that the price of a barrel of oil in 2005 would be $24 per barrel. Now it’s hovering at nearly triple that amount.”

Thirteen years ago, industry executives might have dismissed the high-cost techniques required to get at the relatively small stores of Los Padres crude; they would have considered slant drilling, or “directional drilling” — drilling underground from as much as a half mile away to get at oil under an ecologically sensitive surface — too pricey; now, as oil industry profits soar along with gas prices, they’ll do just about anything. In other parts of the West, the once unthinkable practice of “frac’ing” — cracking rock buried thousands of feet deep — has become an accepted method for accessing deeply buried minerals. Development that seemed like it would take up just a little more than 20 acres, then, may well expand across the entire 4,277 acres approved for surface disturbance.

“It’s just one of the examples of how outdated their report is,” says Kuyper. “We’ve witnessed a trend across the West of oil companies really putting pressure on these agencies to open up new areas for oil drilling. Whether it’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Rocky Mountains or areas in Utah, the general theme rings true in all these areas: Oil companies pushing harder and harder to get deeper and deeper into the forest. Now it’s about to happen in our own backyard.”

IF EXPANDED DRILLING IN THE LOS PADRES could make survival difficult for the red-legged frog and the steelhead trout, it may well mean the end for the forest’s most storied creature: The California condor biologists have been gingerly reintroducing to selected habitats after the last few were taken into captivity in 1987. And the threatened lawsuit gets at a larger issue that applies not only to the condors of the Los Padres National Forest, but to all the birds raised in captivity and raised in the wild, where the perils of human impact await them: How much sense does it make to release sensitive, captive-bred condors into lands still littered with trash, torn up for oil and poisoned with lead?

Last spring, Santa Barbara Assemblyman Pedro Nava saw his bill banning lead bullets from condor habitat beaten back by hunting enthusiasts, and Representative Lois Capps’ federal legislation to ban oil drilling in the Los Padres met a grisly end before making it to the floor. But on Tuesday, 11 condors in Pinnacles National Monument were found to be feeding on vermin that had been poisoned with rodenticide or shot with lead; attempts to trap and test the birds remained under way Tuesday afternoon.

The Forest Service’s oil and gas plan bars drilling within a mile and a half of the condors’ refuges in the Sespe Wilderness and at Hopper Mountain, but environmentalists argue that the buffer means nothing: “A condor covers a hundred miles a day,” says Pamela Flick, the staffer at Defenders of Wildlife working most closely on condor issues. “A mile is nothing.” In fact, she points out, even U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s own official statement states that a condor or two may die.

“Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion says that, ‘Although California condors may be adversely affected, few or none are likely to be killed,’?” Flick explains. “But when you have a species as endangered as the California condor, ‘a few’ is way, way too many.” Given the tens of millions of dollars federal, state and private agencies pour into the lauded condor-recovery program, “it just doesn’t make sense to drill for oil within a stone’s throw of the condors’ primary release site,” says Flick. “Forgive the pun, but that just doesn’t fly with us.”

LA Weekly