Condor Conservation and Oil and Gas Production

(This article was originally published on June 13, 2018, by The Santa Barbara Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has been updated to reflect Carbon California’s continuing commitment to the California Condor Recovery Program)


A core belief: that conservation and industry can go hand-in-hand — yes, just as they do. The Faiths — Nadya and Luke — can show you how it’s done.

Nadya Seal Faith is a conservation biologist with the Santa Barbara Zoo; Luke Faith is a supervisor for Carbon California Company, an oil-production company based in Santa Paula, California.

The zoo, her employer, has worked for more than a decade with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) California Condor Recovery Program.

His employer, Carbon California Company, has operations adjacent to Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge where — yes — biologists work to preserve the condor. The massive bird, with a 9.5-foot wingspan, once hovered on the brink of extinction and was among the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act.


A Storied History

Oil exploration and production have a rich history in Ventura County, California, where the Faiths live and work. Union Oil, the oldest oil company in the west and now a subsidiary of Chevron, was founded in Ventura County in 1890. Today, the industry employs just under 9,000 people in Ventura County, and generates more than $172 million in state and federal tax revenue.

Some of the wells in the Sespe oil field are adjacent to Hopper Mountain NWR. The refuge, established in 1974, supports a variety of habitats, including more than 900 acres of grassland foraging area for condors. The refuge also buffers the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest from the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis about 50 miles southeast. There are 17 wells on the refuge.

Carbon California Company operates the majority of the leases located in the Sespe Field

A pair of California condors perch outside of their nest cave on the side of a cliff near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in California in 2009.

The California Condor Recovery Program is credited with keeping these birds aloft, figuratively and literally.

As the last of the wild California condor population steadily dwindled primarily due to a variety of human-related factors, including lead poisoning, biologists made a bold decision to capture the birds before it was too late; they brought the last wild bird into a captive flock in 1987. They hoped to breed enough birds to reintroduce them into their historic range.

Five years later, in 1992, scientists released a handful of captive-bred birds into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary — knowing, even as the birds took wing, that the condors were close to the Carbon California oil fields. But that site was a place where condors historically foraged and nested.


Collaboration for Conservation

Both Carbon California Company and the Service work to prevent California condors putting themselves at risk by going near oil field equipment building fences around the leased areas. This was an inexpensive and effective way to keep the big birds out of harm’s way.

The innovations didn’t stop there. Following the birds’ release into the wild, several died after striking power lines. The fatalities weren’t the company’s fault fault; they didn’t occur on Carbon California’s oil fields. Even so, the company identified potential hazardous lines on its site and buried them.

The company turned its attention to other possible dangers. On the well locations, any gas or liquid that is stored on site is covered, including water tanks; any length of wire, rope, or cord is secured when not in use by machinery. The company also installed bird deterrents on pumping units to prevent condors from landing on temporary stationary oil pumps, putting them at risk for injury.

There was a microtrash risk, too. Microtrash — tiny bits of debris — are attractive to scavenging condors. Parent birds often pick up the microtrash and feed it to their young, with fatal results.

A microtrash clean-up plan is in place that includes educational signs, training for oil workers, and monthly trash pickups on oil leases and roads. These efforts create a conservation-minded and well trained workforce.


Signs on an oil lease in the hills of Ventura County

California promotes best practices to help protect endangered California condors. The leases are managed by Carbon Energy Corporation, which collaborates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program to implement creative solutions that protect the condor.

“We play a unique and vital role in the protection of the California condors and it is not a responsibility that we take lightly,” said Luke Faith, Carbon’s Area Supervisor. “The public and our agency partners hold us to a high standard and we strive to exceed that standard every day. We are all stakeholders when it comes to protecting the environment and endangered species.”

“The Service came in with an open mind: willing to communicate and educate about the type of management condors needed to recover, and willing to learn what it takes to operate an oil field,” he said. “They did not impose restrictions, but instead made recommendations based upon our shared knowledge of one another’s resources and limitations.”

Dave Ledig, the Service’s project leader at Hopper Mountain NWR, returned the compliment.

“The relationship we’ve built over the years is invaluable,” he said. “Not only for their proactive contributions to California condor recovery, but also for their willingness to come to the table, have a conversation and share information.”

The collaboration surely extends to the Faith family.

“My husband and I make our relationship work because we follow basic tenets that allow for success in any relationship,” said Seal Faith.

“…Just because I work toward and care deeply about conservation doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate how petroleum-based products enrich my life,” she said. “And just because my husband works for a petroleum company doesn’t mean that he can’t spend his leisure time enjoying nature through hiking, fishing and even birding.

“We’ve found happiness not in spite of what we do, but because we’re able to learn from each other and strengthen our relationship because of it.”

Today, an estimated 80 wild California condors use the Sespe region for roosting, foraging and nesting. The total wild population is nearing 280 birds, with another approximately 170 birds in captivity.

The Santa Barbara Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program present an award for their efforts to protect the California condor on their oil leases in the Sespe. Pictured, l-r: Nadya Seal Faith, Santa Barbara Zoo; Steve Kirkland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Luke Faith, Carbon California Company.

Condor Habitat Management
All work areas are clearly marked with Condor awareness signage. Equipment and work related materials are contained within those boundaries.
Vehicles are never permitted off established roads or approved locations.
All hydrocarbons are contained within a closed system, which is equipped with advanced safety features and follows robust testing protocols.
Complete onsite education on all protected species, including the Condor.
All work areas are kept free of trash and debris.