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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 5th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 40 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 40

County taking public comment on proposed Cat Canyon oil field

By Spencer Cole

After four years of waiting, Aera Energy's environmental impact report (EIR) for its East Cat Canyon Oil Field redevelopment project is available for public inspection. 

The Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department released the draft document on Nov. 30. Aera, which is owned by the Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Shell Energy Company, is currently seeking to reopen an old Exxon field about 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria.The century-old field has been idle for roughly two decades. 

"This is an important step for our project," said Rick Rust, Aera's Santa Barbara representative. "Our goal is to provide the energy California needs while protecting people and the environment."

Aera representatives touted the EIR's release as the culmination of a half decade of analysis by the county Planning Department. They said the plan featured an "alternative footprint" that leaves "roughly 94 percent" of the project undisturbed by development, including a 500-acre permanent conservation area for native oak trees and wildlife.

An earlier iteration of the EIR had called for the removal of some 500 to 1,500 mature oaks, much to the chagrin of environmental activists. 

"You can't really replace a mature oak tree," said Katie Davis, chair of the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club, before Aera changed the amount of trees proposed to be bulldozed. "They're more water intensive when they are young so it's not the same as the old oak trees that have been there now for decades." 

Aera Energy submitted an environmental impact report (EIR) for its proposed East Cat Canyon Oil Field redevelopment project to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, which opened the report up to public comment now through Jan. 28. The project proposes up to 296 wells in the expansion.

Davis noted the trees were only one concern about the proposed oil field. 

"All the conventional oil in that field is gone," she told the Sun. "All they are doing is going back to get this hard-to-access heavy oil." 

Most of the work proposed for the Aera Cat Canyon Oil Field is cyclic steam injection, a so-called "enhanced" oil recovery method that involves injecting steam into a well for a set amount of time in order to heat the oil in the surrounding reservoir so it can be more easily extracted. 

The fossil fuel industry in general claims the process is relatively harmless, doesn't use fresh water, and is the most effective way to access oil and natural gas in hard-to-reach reserves. Environmental activists counter that the practice endangers groundwater quality and that the energy expended is not worth the potential energy gained.

"It takes a tremendous amount of natural gas to actually heat that earth up to 500 degrees [Fahrenheit] to melt that heavy oil in the ground," Davis said. "So a tremendous amount of fossil fuels is used to access more fossil fuels. That's why air and greenhouse gas pollution for these projects are so much higher than conventional drilling."

Davis said the largest risks stemming from the project revolved around the injection of hydrochloric acids and other chemicals into the ground, potentially engagering underground water supplies. 

"They'll say, 'We're not using fresh water for production,' but they'll only say 'production' because they use a tremendous amount of fresh water to drill each of these wells," she added. It takes an estimated 7 million to 8 million gallons of water annually to operate a steam injection site the size Aera is proposing, according to the Sierra Club. 

"In this area we rely on our local groundwater for drinking and agriculture," Davis explained. "The real risk here is putting that really precious groundwater at risk."

Aera is proposing the development and operation of up to 296 wells, including oil/gas production wells, steam injection wells, observation wells, non-potable water production wells, water injection wells, and fresh groundwater wells, according to the EIR. No hydraulic fracturing would be used for the project.

According to a report by the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, the East Cat Canyon project will result in more than $1 billion in economic activity and will create "well-paying jobs for workers, as well as income for local businesses."

Project proponents have also pointed to what the Aera activity will do for the local taxbase. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the oil field would place Aera as one of the largest property taxpayers in Santa Barbara County. 

"We are proud to be associated with a project that will generate locally produced energy, at a facility built by local labor, that will create local jobs going forward," said Michael G. Lopez, business manager of U.A. Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 114.

Since the draft EIR was released on Nov. 30, the public now has until Jan. 28, 2019, to comment on it. Those comments can be submitted to the county's project planner, Kathryn Lehr, at 123 E. Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA, 93101, or by email at, or by phone at (805) 568-3560 and fax at (805) 568-2030. 

Comments will also be taken by the county at a public meeting on Jan. 17 at the Betteravia Government Center, Board of Supervisors' hearing room, 511 E. Lakeside Parkway in Santa Maria and at the Engineering Building and Planning Commission hearing room, 123 E. Anapamu St., Santa Barbara.

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