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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 27th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 33 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 17, Issue 33

Pacific Coast Energy Company appeals denial of cyclic steaming project expansion, bringing issue to Santa Barbara County supervisors


Appealing a denial from the county Planning Commission in July, the Pacific Coast Energy Company (PCEC) has brought its Orcutt Hill oil drilling project proposal back to the table with the Board of Supervisors.

Originally, PCEC requested to add 96 new cyclic steaming wells to its project on Orcutt Hill, in addition to the 96 wells it has already established there. The Planning Commission voted to deny the request due to “unavoidable impacts to biological resources and water resources due to potential oil seeps and oil spills/leaks,” which the commission thought were more significant than the project’s potential economic benefits.

The Pacific Coast Energy Company is fighting to expand its drilling project on Orcutt Hill. Supporters say the expansion would do wonders for the economy, while opponents say the environmental risks aren’t worth it.

PCEC has since appealed to the supervisors and revamped its proposal. At the Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 11 meeting, PCEC presented an alternative request that excludes drilling in the Careaga Tar Zone, which is strongly associated with oil seeps. The company argued that by excluding this area, the project would have a smaller environmental impact and would decrease in size by about 20 percent.

The board voted to continue the item to its Nov. 1 meeting, when PCEC is expected to answer some questions about the new proposal.

The big issue with PCEC’s cyclic steaming project is oil seeps, which release crude oil to the ground surface and threaten the health of endangered or sensitive animals and plants. On Orcutt Hill, these species include the California tiger salamander and the Lompoc yerba santa plant. According to the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), more than 100 seeps have occurred at PCEC’s drilling sites since the company began work on Orcutt Hill in 2007—significantly more than what naturally occurred on the hill prior to PCEC’s drilling endeavors.

At the Oct. 11 meeting, PCEC CEO Randall Breitenbach said that by excluding the Careaga Tar Zone, the company will avoid creating future seeps.

“By moving the project away from the Careaga zone, we eliminate the possibility of seeps associated with the new wells,” Breitenbach said at the meeting. “To be clear, the Careaga exclusion reduces the project scope and will exclude wells from being drilled through or under the Careaga zone.”

But EDC staff attorney Alicia Roessler told the Sun that Breitenbach couldn’t possibly have evidence that drilling outside the Careaga Tar Zone would prevent seeps, given that the company has only drilled in that zone to date.

“It’s the first time they’ll be using cyclic steaming to drill off the Careaga formation,” Roessler said. “So there’s no evidence to say that if they drill outside the Careaga formation, it’ll decrease seeps.”

County energy specialist Peter Cantle told the Sun that PCEC’s tweaked proposal also offers to set aside 21 acres for the preservation of tiger salamander ponds. Additionally, the company has signed a labor agreement with a building trades group, increasing the project’s economic incentive, and offered to fund a study program for the Lompoc yerba santa.

Cantle said the board is now considering a project that’s different from the one the Planning Commission denied.

“What’s happening now is the board is considering this project as if it’s the Careaga exclusion,” he said, “but also these additional offers that PCEC is putting on the table. So that’s what they’re looking at and considering whether that’s worthy of the approval.”

Cantle added that the board and company are also considering making further exclusions from the proposed drilling site—specifically, areas within a 2,200-foot radius around known and suspected California tiger salamander breeding ponds, separate from the 21-acre preservation offered by the company for the salamander.

“If you overlay those two exclusions on each other, they create a larger amount of territory excluded from being drilled by PCEC,” Cantle said. “The exclusion of those drilling areas would mean something around 60 percent of what they originally applied for would be available to them.”

Cantle said it’s unclear if the company’s request will still include permission for all 96 additional wells, but that question should be addressed at the board’s Nov. 1 meeting.

He added that PCEC has offered to reduce its maximum greenhouse gas emissions threshold from 1,000 tons to zero. Roessler clarified that this offer doesn’t mean PCEC would emit zero tons of greenhouse gases from its oil drilling project, but rather that if the company pursues the project, it will also fund programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere in the county so that the Orcutt Hill emissions would break even.

Roessler told the Sun that the EDC—which is representing the Santa Barbara County Action Network and the Sierra Club in this issue—still stands against the project, even considering PCEC’s proposed changes.

“This oil project is one of the dirtiest oil operations in the county,” Roessler said. “They’ve already destroyed over six acres of sensitive habitat and destroyed over 360 endangered plants.”

She added that even if PCEC succeeded in reducing oil seeps and providing adequate protection to the tiger salamander and yerba santa, the company has not addressed the issue of surface oil expressions, which come from equipment failures in wells. Surface oil expressions have occurred at least four times on PCEC’s Orcutt Hill site, Roessler said.

“It doesn’t matter if they drill over the Careaga or off the Careaga,” she said. “The impacts from the risk of those oil surface expressions remain the same.” 

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly quoted Roessler as saying PCEC's project has destroyed more than 60 acres of land.
Oct. 27, 2016


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