Oil Wells in San Mateo County?

MidPen will remove old oil facilities and restore the area (photo credit: Midpen)

San Mateo County has some of the oldest oil fields in California dating back to the 1880s. During the past several decades, Green Foothills opposed many new oil wells proposed on prime agricultural land where farming is the principal allowable use.

We supported San Mateo County’s Ordinance, enacted in the 1980s, that restricted new oil wells to “non-prime farmland” – basically in the hilly uplands. Unfortunately, improper and careless drilling methods still occurred under these strict regulations creating ponds full of drilling fluids and oil residue where many birds and even one domestic cow perished.

Naturally, we supported the San Mateo County Planning Commission’s unanimous approval on January 11, 2020 of a permit for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) to demolish a 1970s relic well and associated pipelines and storage tanks, along with an old hunting cabin and septic tank, and fully restore the site on a hillside overlooking Purissima Creek.

San Mateo County’s Era of Oil Wells

The 1970 well that Midpen is set to demolish is not the only one in the vicinity of Purissima Creek. Back in 1882-84, “Lane’s Well” was drilled at an oil seep next to Purissima Creek, a few miles south of Half Moon Bay. Over the following decades, more wells were drilled whenever the price of oil was high enough to make it economically feasible to bore for a relatively limited amount of oil.

The “Half Moon Bay” oil field was one of three small geographic areas where commercial oil production occurred over many decades. The other two areas are west of La Honda, near Highway 84, and in the upper watershed of Pescadero Creek, where Oil Creek and Tarwater Creek are place names highlighting the past.

A natural oil seep in Pescadero Creek County Park, where the Canyon Trail
crosses Tarwater Creek. (Courtesy of Richard Stanley)

The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo spurred a mini-oil boom as the price of crude oil skyrocketed in response to an unprecedented shortage of oil and gas in the U.S. in the late 1970s. Several enterprising oil companies applied for permits to drill new wells in the Half Moon Bay and La Honda oil fields.  These were not your ordinary Texas and Oklahoma wells – the resource was limited, and the oil was deep in the ground.

Production from the San Mateo wells was marginal at best, and after prices stabilized, many of these “stripper” wells were shut down.  Some relics of this era remain as abandoned storage tanks, pipelines, and even a rusty grasshopper pump or two.

A new Era – Let’s Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

According to recent news accounts, there are only two operating oil wells left in San Mateo County – located a short distance from the original Purissima Creek well.  We hope that these old wells — which only produce a trickle of oil — are the end of an era.

It’s disturbing that offshore oil drilling along the California coast has been proposed by the Trump administration. While San Mateo County’s coast does have some offshore oil and gas resources, the environmental impacts from drilling in our sensitive coastal Marine Sanctuaries are not worth the benefits.  Green Foothills will continue to vigorously oppose any offshore drilling. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is a high priority if we are to begin to address the planet’s existential global warming crisis.

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