When Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District acquired the final piece of land in the puzzle to connect Skyline Boulevard to the Coastal Trail it was a celebratory moment. But before the group’s planned Purisima-to-the-Sea Trail can become a reality, the district has a cleanup job to do.
Atop the land is an old oil well from the 1970s and a rustic hunting cabin. And as soon as the ground dries this year, the group will begin restoring the land with a permit from the San Mateo County Planning Department.
“We’ll be removing any material left there and capping the well permanently,” said Midpen Open Space Public Affairs Specialist Leigh Ann Gessner. “It’s a pretty light touch.”
But that’s not the only old oil well in the area. Lennie Roberts, longtime local environmental leader and legislative advocate for Green Foothills, knows firsthand much of the recent history of drilling in the county.
The first oil wells were built in the county in the late 1800s, but Roberts said that in the 1970s and ’80s, the area experienced a mini oil boom.
“Not many people know there have been oil wells in San Mateo County,” Roberts said.
There were around 30 to 40 oil wells in total in the county at the time, some of which were near Half Moon Bay. She said the materials associated with drilling, like the chemical-infused drilling fluids that form a pond next to the well, harmed the local environment. Roberts even knew a local farmer whose cow died in the mud next to a well.
“It’s not something you want to leave lying around,” Roberts said. “They disturbed the land a lot.”
But today, most of those wells have been abandoned. A map compiled by the Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times shows a smattering of old wells along Purisima Creek Road and La Honda Road, all sitting idle. There are just two licensed oil wells left in the county, and John Tedesco, who owns and operates them, said his 1920s-era wells are shallow and not very productive. He acquired the wells when he bought his property in the 1980s.
“I send maybe a truckload out a year,” Tedesco said.
Tedesco enjoys selling his high-quality product as a way to chip away at the country’s reliance on foreign oil, but said he doesn’t have any plans to expand production.
As onshore oil drilling in the county reduces to a trickle, offshore oil may be making a comeback.
So far, the 1986 Measure A prohibiting onshore facilities in San Mateo County’s coastal zone for offshore drilling has kept it at bay. But Roberts said she’s worried the Trump administration, which announced in 2018 a plan to expand offshore drilling across the county, could jeopardize that protection.
She said Green Foothills remains committed to fighting all types of oil drilling due to environmental safety concerns and climate change.
“Every time there is a possibility to think of another way to say no, we do,”
Roberts said. “It makes no sense to be drilling new wells for an energy source that we all know is detrimental to the planet. Now, we want to keep it in the ground.”