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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 2nd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 30

Santa Maria Energy gets the drilling go ahead from county planning commissioners, but could face an appeal

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

After a long, much-debated, and somewhat tedious process, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission finally gave Santa Maria Energy the nod for its proposed oil well expansion project on Sept. 25, but drills can’t bore into the earth with unrestrained vigor just yet.

Nathan Alley, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, said he’s got clients who aren’t quite satisfied with the decision or the route by which planning commissioners arrived at their position.

“The county didn’t have the evidence necessary to set the greenhouse gas emissions threshold where they did,” Alley told the Sun on Sept. 30. “We are leaning toward [an] appeal. We will most likely file it by Friday [Oct. 4].”

An appeal on the planning commission’s decision would push the project in front of the county Board of Supervisors, and supervisors would deliberate the project’s paradoxes before issuing a decision.

“It’s unfortunate that this needs to be drawn out,” said Bob Poole, Santa Maria Energy public and government affairs manager. “People are going to do what they’re going to do.”

The emissions argument has thus far held up the project since April, when planning commissioners first continued a decision on the matter due to unresolved issues about where to set a greenhouse gas emissions limit for the 136-well project.

As it stands now, the energy company is currently operating 26 “exploratory” steam injection oil wells on the Orcutt Oil Field. Expansion plans call for drilling 110 more steam injection wells, and projects that the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions at peak output will be a little less than 88,000 metric tons per year.

At the Sept. 25 planning commission meeting, commissioners opted 3-2, with 3rd District Commissioner Joan Hartmann and 1st District Commissioner C. Michael Cooney dissenting, to set the greenhouse gas emissions threshold at 29 percent of business as usual.

That figure means Santa Maria Energy would need to mitigate its 88,000 metric tons of emissions down by 29 percent, either by buying the roughly 25,500 metric tons in credits through California’s Cap-and-Trade program or through some other similar method. It’s a figure that was collaboratively agreed upon between county staff and the energy company before the April meeting.

The figure is nearly twice what California requires through its emissions regulations law, Assembly Bill 32, which states that any producer of more than 20,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions has to mitigate down by 16 percent of business as usual.

And although hard line environmental groups like those represented by Alley of the Environmental Defense Center think the energy company can afford and should mitigate all the way down to zero emissions, Poole from Santa Maria Energy said 29 percent is the most reasonable, defensible course of action. During the energy company’s presentation at the Sept. 25 planning commission meeting, Laurie Tamura, Santa Maria Energy permit and development manager, reminded commissioners that any emissions requirements placed on the project need to be tied to direct impacts from the project to the surrounding environment.

Tamura went on to say that anything higher than the 29 percent outlined in the project document “runs afoul of constitutional requirements.”

“It is a legally defensible, sound document that addresses the concerns brought up by the community,” Tamura said.

She echoed what the head of the county’s energy and minerals department, Doug Anthony, said earlier in the meeting: The decision should be based on the proportionality between what’s emitted and what’s mitigated, “a fair share based on substantial evidence.”

Anthony said the county uses the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and AB32 to set its thresholds because the county doesn’t have any greenhouse gas emissions laws of its own and makes decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“We are dependant upon CEQA guidelines and CEQA laws to guide us though,” he said during the meeting. “We have complied with CEQA, we have quantified the amount of emissions for the project.”

During the meeting, 2nd District Commissioner Cecilia Brown surprised many by voting for the project at the 29 percent threshold. Brown said while she wanted to take a more dramatic approach to regulating emissions on the project, she also was aware she needed to use common sense.

Other options on the table were to set a hard line at 10,000 metric tons, and anything produced over that number would need to be mitigated; 50 percent of business as usual, and the company would need to mitigate for 50 percent of its emissions; or to mitigate down by 90 percent of business as usual, and Santa Maria Energy would need to buy credits to cover 90 percent of its emissions.

Alley from the Environmental Defense Center said there are plenty of California counties and communities that use a more stringent threshold for greenhouse gas emissions, and those should be used as ample evidence to set the bar higher in Santa Barbara County.

 

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.