How an ex-oil executive and seismic test inventor, along with an ex-oil industry seismologist, sold an environmentally and economically devastating seismic test off the coast in Estero Bay to the State. Major organizations from around the state have unified to stop it before it starts.
“My name is Sam Blakeslee, and I represent the 15th District in the California State Senate. I am a former research scientist and earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara for research in seismic scattering, micro-earthquake studies, and fault-zone attenuation. I previously worked as a research scientist at Exxon’s research lab in Texas, where I received a patent for inventing an innovative technique that used medical cat-scan mathematics to create detailed images of geologic formations. Later, I moved into management and became a Strategic Planner, where I was responsible for creating and managing Exxon budgets.”
—February 10, 2012 testimony of State Senator Sam Blakeslee for the Public Utilities Commission on PG&E’s application for ratepayer funding to perform additional seismic studies recommended by the California Energy Commission
“Bruce Gibson is a fifth-generation Californian who has lived in Cayucos and Cambria since 1989. After graduating from Pomona College, Gibson completed his master’s degree in geophysics at the University of Hawaii. In 1976, he took a job in Houston, Texas, doing research in exploration seismology. [1976 -1984, Sr. Research Geophysicist, Western Geophysical Co., now Western Geco, ‘the world’s leading geophysical services company.’] After eight years there, Bruce helped establish a seismic exploration program at Rice University, where he also earned his doctorate… With the move to Cambria, Bruce switched fields from geophysics to agriculture. Since 1993, he and his family have lived on their ranch in rural Cayucos, where Bruce still farms the county’s oldest commercial orange grove. He is a licensed pilot…”
—From SLO County Supervisor Bruce Gibson’s 2006 “Bruce Gibson for Supervisor” website
It all begins with teamwork.
Sam Blakeslee (R–San Luis Obispo) was elected to the California State Assembly in 2004. Almost immediately after he was elected he began crafting Assembly Bill 1632, which sought seismic reviews of the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre Nuclear Power Plants. AB 1632 became law in 2006, the same year Bruce Gibson (D-San Luis Obispo) was elected to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors representing the 2nd district, which includes Cayucos, Cambria, Morro Bay and Los Osos.
Sam Blakeslee, former oil company seismologist, and Bruce Gibson, former oil industry geophysicist, have developed a successful working relationship over the years. They have honed a mechanism for writing laws and then turning them into multimillion-dollar projects — Sen. Blakeslee, the Sacramento legislator, Supervisor Gibson, the county enforcer. Blakeslee creates the bill and whips it through an indifferent state senate, and Gibson rams through the associated project, whatever it is, regardless of the cost to taxpayers.
Gibson has long touted his environmental record as one of his strengths, but that record has been all but shredded over the last several years by colossal, contradictory environmental failures he would prefer to call “accomplishments.” The teflon coating that has long insulated him from mounting criticism on key issues that matter to most constituents in his district is peeling off in chunks.
First it was the Los Osos Sewer Project.
In 2006 the California State Assembly passed then-Assemblyman Blakeslee’s AB 2701, turning over control of the bitterly disputed Los Osos sewer project to the County, where it landed on the desk of 2nd District Supervisor Gibson, who represents Los Osos.
Ramming through a project set to cost upwards of $200 million, Supervisor Gibson dropped cheaper, environmentally superior alternatives and open bidding from the selection process at the 11th hour. His choice was the more expensive, seismically hazardous gravity collection system in a County-documented liquefaction zone over the town’s dwindling fresh water supply. Clearly, if Drs. Blakeslee and Gibson, who know geology doesn’t play favorites, were so interested in seismic hazards such earthquakes and liquefaction, the impacts of which were vividly demonstrated during the 2011 Fukushima and Christchurch, New Zealand quakes, the gravity collection system in Los Osos — being constructed only eight miles from Diablo Canyon, near the Los Osos fault — would have been eliminated at the outset of the selection process in 2006. But special interests prevailed over common sense and public safety.
As a byproduct of Supervisor Gibson’s $200-million monument to waste in a state-declared “disadvantaged community,” single-family households in Los Osos’ so-called “Prohibition Zone” will be forced to pay what averages out to be around $200 a month for the bloated project, making it one of the most expensive sewers per capita in the U.S. Many seniors, fixed and low income homeowners simply can’t afford the sewer bill and will have to move. Many already have. No economic impact report of the sewer on the community was ever conducted. Construction on the Los Osos sewer started in October.
Now it is PG&E’s Central California Coastal Seismic Imaging Project.
Once again, Sen. Blakeslee and Supervisor Gibson have teamed up, this time on the powerful seismic test – with Blakeslee the legislator, Gibson the implementer, and the environment the victim, along with thousands of taxpayers and ratepayers forced to pay the bill. For both projects, the statement of overriding consideration is the same: public safety. With Los Osos it was alleged, suspected pollution from septic systems that was the designated threat. With Estero Bay, the threat to public safety lies in the seismic vulnerability of PG&E’s aging Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, built in the 1970s near and on seismically active fault lines, and in the potential of a Fukushima-like seismic event triggering a nuclear catastrophe at Diablo Canyon.
As environmentally disastrous as the Los Osos sewer is and will be for years to come, it is only exceeded in magnitude of calamity by PG&E’s high-intensity seismic test off the Central Coast. What the two megaprojects have in common is that the seismic test promises to have the same impact on Morro Bay, environmentally and economically, as the Los Osos sewer has already begun to have on Los Osos; and that both are unnecessary, except, that is, to major corporations and consulting firms doing business with government and politicians who could directly benefit from future contributions to fuel a campaign for higher office.
A rejuvenated Morro Bay fishing industry and the community that surrounds it will be blown backwards in time and progress from the hard-fought economic and environmental gains made over the past three years. Shooting 250 decibels of intense noise from air guns into the ocean floor every 15 seconds 24 hours a day will wipe out any sea life caught in their blast – plankton, eggs, juveniles, shellfish, habitats, fish and mammals. For Bruce Gibson, former recipient of SLO County Environmental Achievement Awards on behalf of various groups, it’s an absolute necessity.
Headline in the August 10, 2012 San Luis Obispo Tribune: Supervisor Gibson’s concerns about Diablo Canyon seismic surveys echo Blakeslee’s. “In April,” according to the article, “state Sen. Sam Blakeslee expressed concerns about seismic surveys around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that mirror concerns San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson has raised.” Echoes and mirrors.
In another polished act of perfect symmetry, Sen. Blakeslee inquired in an April 27, 2012 letter to PG&E about the techniques and equipment planned for the survey. He questioned the use of a smaller academic research vessel instead of a larger private oil industry vessel. Attempting to make the test appear more palatable to fishermen, Sen. Blakeslee has stated that the larger vessel could also tow a larger array of sensors than the smaller vessel, thereby shortening survey time in the water, causing less damage to the environment, while producing better quality data.
Passed the baton by Blakeslee, Supervisor Gibson continues to insist that the larger industry vessel is more “state of the art” and must be used because it is the “best available technology.” Because his larger vessel can do more, he claims, it will finish the test in fewer days and therefore reduce the environmental impacts that the smaller Langseth would extend. He has never questioned the necessity, as he sees it, of the test itself. But now he appears ready to hold up support for the project he helped steer, convinced he will get his larger oil ship once yet another not-so-Independent Peer Review Panel has more time to review it. PG&E has said that the smaller vessel can get closer to shore than the larger ship, operate more flexibly in shallow waters, and that Supervisor Gibson’s ship has been previously peer reviewed out of the process because it didn’t work. That hasn’t deterred Gibson.
Comparing X-ray to MRI Technology
Few understand how deeply rooted Blakeslee and Gibson are in PG&E’s $64-million-and-climbing 3D high-energy seismic mega-test. In fact, it’s safe to say that there would be no 3D test if not for Blakeslee’s bill, AB 1632, and Gibson pushing the ratepayer-subsided survey as “crucial” to fathoming the seismic hazards to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach.
Marc Krausse, PG&E’s Director of State Agency Relations, explained more about Blakeslee and Gibson’s one-two punch behind the scenes in promoting the 3D high-energy survey and sharing the same technical agenda. He made his rather candid remarks in his response to Department of Fish & Game Commissioners’ probing questions at a Sept. 24 Ventura, California workshop on the test.
When asked about less invasive alternatives to 3D high-energy, Mr. Krausse said: “PG&E’s been doing seismic surveys for over 30 years. We’ve used a variety of technologies that have included, in the most recent past, low-energy 3D surveys, 2D surveys, a number of other technologies, and felt that was sufficient, when Assembly member Sam Blakeslee, who represents this area of the coast, came to the legislature with a bill, AB 1632, and said the CEC [California Energy Commission] should study this and determine really what are the vulnerabilities for both of the nuclear plants.
“And in the course of that study it was determined that 3D high-energy seismic technology should be used, and part of what informed that was both Mr. Blakeslee’s experience in the oil industry field and our local supervisor, Bruce Gibson, who sits on that Independent Peer Review Panel you heard about that the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] has formed. Supervisor Gibson also feels that this is the appropriate technology. So as people have asked, is there something else you could be using that is less harmful to the environment, I think we’re talking about a weighing here; first, the importance of getting this data, and second, what is the environmental impact.
“The analogy that Supervisor Gibson uses – and he’s a geologist, so he was selected not just because he’s a local elected in the area but he formerly did this in his academic career with Rice University… (It’s) been a number of years… but he uses the analogy of: We’re currently using the equivalent to X-ray technology for looking at some medical question, and this is really the MRI technology. I think he’s even said, (it’s) one of the very latest (technologies) on that, and this is akin to that; that we need to use high-energy 3D because it gives you that additional layer of understanding… That is why I mention the balancing. That is certainly the crux of NRDC’s [National Resources Defense Council’s] comment letter saying, the additional information you will pick up from this (test) doesn’t justify the environmental impact.
“So those who specialize in this area – Supervisor Gibson, Assembly member Blakeslee and others – believe that it is absolutely appropriate to be using this technology to get that additional layer, particularly after Fukushima. Can we tell you that if you’re worried about a tumor that an X-ray is good enough? And we just don’t feel that we can tell our residents on the Central Coast that low-energy technology is good enough.”
Responding to Mr. Gibson’s MRI analogy as conveyed by Mr. Krausse, Fish & Game Commissioner Michael Sutton said, “We have a lot of unnecessary MRIs conducted every year in hospitals around the country. Part of our job here, and of all the agencies, is to make sure if we do an MRI out there that it’s actually necessary.
“If a doctor can determine enough by an X-ray, they don’t need to do an MRI,” Sutton said. “Just because we have the equipment and the money it doesn’t mean we absolutely have to have an MRI. So I guess the question here is, if you didn’t have a statutory (inaudible), would you want to do this project. If you didn’t have to, would you want to do this absent any sort of legal mandate?”
Replied Krausse: “I’m the former executive director of the State Ethics Agency, so I’m going to give you a very straight answer. Prior to the mandate that we had, and during the advocacy on that bill, PG&E’s position was, this is not necessary, in large part, though, because of the Franciscan formation, the particular type of rock we have off coast there, and our seismologists believed, that this (3D high energy) technology would not image well, those rock formations would not image well using this technology. We’ve since learned using low-energy 3D that they do actually image quite well, so I think our geoscientist team has kind of come about a different understanding, and they believe this will glean additional information that they believe is absolutely crucial.
“And again that goes to, you don’t really know until you know the answer, right? – until you have the results of the studies. If the answer is, you’re beyond your design basis, (that) this plant was not built sufficiently to withstand the highest magnitude earthquake, or ground motion rather, you could have, then the answer would certainly be yes, we should, we need to do these studies. You don’t know until you get to the answer,” Krausse reemphasized.
Hunter Kilpatrick, Morro Bay resident, Central Coast Director of the California Graywhale Coalition and a member of the C.O.A.S.T Alliance opposing the test, addressed the analogy during public comment: “I don’t need an MRI to tell me I’ve got a broken bone, I need an MRI to tell me I have soft tissue damage. We’re not talking soft tissue damage in the Earth’s crust, so I don’t like that analogy.”
It is at least ironic that a similar technology to the MRI technology featured in Gibson’s X-ray/MRI analogy was invented by Sen. Blakeslee and will be used in PG&E’s seismic test. The patent to that technology, “an innovative technique that used medical cat-scan mathematics to create detailed images of geologic formations,” as described by Blakeslee, is now held by ExxonMobil.
‘Invaluable Informing the Process’
Yet another seemingly off-hand incident shed further light on Supervisor Gibson’s lobbying efforts with Deputy State Controller Alan Gordon, who was sitting in for State Controller John Chiang at the State Lands Commission permitting hearings in Sacramento on August 14. Immediately following what appeared to be the end of video-skyped Morro Bay public comment from the Inn at Morro Bay, Commissioner Gordon stopped to allow one more speaker from Morro Bay to be heard.
San Luis Obispo resident Kenneth Dutra of San Luis Obispo concluded his remarks opposing the test by saying: “I would like to see them shut the plant down. Mr. Gibson on his own has other ideas, but like they said, the ship is going to come in and it’s only going to be here for a year. But when it leaves I think Mr. Gibson should be on it.”
The comment befuddled Commissioner Gordon for a moment. “I’m not quite sure exactly the response to that,” he managed. “We have listened to the testimony that Mr. Gibson has represented his constituents remarkably well, he has been incred,” Gordon caught himself, “invaluable to us informing the process so that we can understand these issues. As a college professor at UC Davis, I know it’s very difficult to explain technical scientific issues in language that layman can understand, and I think Mr. Gibson has done a phenomenal job at doing that.“
Part of that “phenomenal job” was Gibson’s ability to hop in his own plane kept at San Luis Obispo Airport – he has a pilot’s license – and fly to Sacramento to be on hand to be “invaluable informing the process” for State Lands Commissioners and staff, who appeared to have made up their minds to permit the project even before all the testimony had been heard and weighed.
‘Time in the Water’
Gibson’s X-ray/MRI analogy is a prime example of the sound-bite salesmanship he has used to inform SLC Commissioners Gordon and Chiang, State Lands staff, Public Utilities Commission and other agencies in the loop. PG&E’s Krausse picked up Gibson’s science-for-dummies analogy because it was so useful. He passed it along and it backfired at the Department of Fish & Game workshop, becoming a flashpoint on the issue of the actual necessity of the test when several 2D and 3D seismic tests of the area have already been done. PG&E embraced Gibson’s analogy because it works on those who are not experts in the field and can’t question them. More importantly for Gibson, the X-ray/MRI analogy feeds into his argument on the quality of the seismic imaging and his oft-repeated call for his more “state-of-the-art” vessel, one that is also used for locating deep-sea oil and gas deposits:
“We need to assess whether a state-of-the-art, large-number-streamer boat could be more efficient,” Gibson told the Board of Supervisors on September 4. “That relates to time in the water, thus it relates to environmental impact: less time in the water, less environmental impact; less time in the water, less economic impact, in the sense of displacing, for instance, commercial fishing from their grounds.”
Gibson’s obsession with the larger oil industry boat lends the firm impression that he cares more about vessels than people. (In Los Osos, he remains deaf to thousands free-falling into financial ruin from Blakeslee-Gibson’s unaffordable, seismically-hazardous sewer.) In Morro Bay, in fact, the lessening of the environmental impact as a result of Gibson’s ship finishing earlier than PG&E’s ship would be negligible on commercial fishing since the vast majority of the damage from sound blasting marine life and habitats with 250 decibels of intense noise every 15 seconds 24 hours a day every day will already have taken place after even one week of constant sonic assault. Saving some days on the water and a few fish after the initial siege won’t leave many survivors behind to kill off.
Then again, Gibson is a fierce proponent of the test, and stopping the test for all the right reasons – because it is an unnecessary and devastating environmental/economic trade-off on behalf of an aging, dangerous nuclear power plant precariously perched on seismically active fault lines – is simply not in his political vocabulary.
Following public comment at the September 4 SLO Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Frank Mecham asked Gibson if there were any alternative seismic testing methods that could be used rather than 3D high energy. Without hesitation Gibson unequivocally stated “No.” As a geophysicist on the Independent Peer Review Panel for the seismic testing, he knows better. When given the opportunity to mention the 2D and 3D seismic tests that have already been done, even recently, with some data still yet to be analyzed, he couldn’t resist making the case for the current test and misleading Supervisor Mecham and the public to believe there were no alternatives – when there certainly are. But, because there didn’t happen to be a seismologist in the room that day to refute him, he was able to get away with it without being corrected then and there.
Nevertheless, his answer on the record remains a clear violation of public trust, providing yet another clear illustration of the lengths that Gibson will go to get what he wants, even as he claims to work towards public trust at the same time.
The residents of Morro Bay are finding out what Los Osos already knew. Supervisor Gibson can live with trading the ocean and Morro Bay’s hard-fought present and future in exchange for propping up the mistakes of the past by making the same mistakes all over again 45 years later. Riding PG&E’s seismic survey may make good politics for Drs. Blakeslee and Gibson, who don’t look at price tags, but it’s not acceptable to many thousands of upset coastal residents who must pay a heavy price, as will some of their fellow mammals – whales, porpoise, dolphin, seals, sea lions, seal elephants and otters.
If Gibson now belatedly fails to halt the project he and Blakeslee so aggressively brought forth, he can at least say he tried and act like a hero. If the project is stopped this year by the Coastal Commission on Nov. 14-15, then Gibson will come back next year, same time, same place. Next year, though, he will return with a vengeance. Next time, after controlling the new, supposedly independent peer review, he will be back armed and dangerous with his big oil vessel in tow, air guns ready, fighting for a permit to bomb the bay and everything in it.