Sunday, July 12, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 19

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 3rd, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 14 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 14

Two oil projects proposed in Cat Canyon have been canceled within the last two months


In March 2019, the Sun ran a cover story titled “Carbon evolution” that explored the contentious debate taking place in Santa Barbara County over three large-scale oil and gas projects proposed in the Cat Canyon oil field. A little more than a year later, it appears this evolution is over before it started. Two of the projects were canceled in the last two months.

In the last two months, Aera Energy and PetroRock have both pulled their oil drilling projects proposed for Cat Canyon.

Company representatives said that the political climate in the county, where many residents and elected leaders are vocal about their preference of green energy, makes pushing an oil project through the local permitting process an uphill battle. And this hill grew even steeper with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that sent the price of oil plummeting in April to historic lows. 

In late March, PetroRock pulled its proposed plans to develop 231 new wells in the Cat Canyon oil field, which is about 10 to 15 miles southeast of Santa Maria. At the time, Errin Briggs, supervisor of the county Planning and Development Department’s Energy, Minerals, and Compliance Division, said the company didn’t offer an explanation for withdrawing its application. However, Briggs speculated that the low price of oil along with the state’s stringent regulatory process were probably significant factors in the decision.

On May 27, Aera Energy representative Rick Rust confirmed to the Sun that the company had recently withdrawn its application for the East Cat Canyon project. 

“The decision is a combination of historically low oil prices and uncertainty of the permit process,” Rust said. “Together that helped us decide to make this decision.” 

Until pulling its application, Aera had navigated the permitting process for six years and appeared to be near the end. In early 2019, the county held a public meeting to discuss a draft environmental impact review for Aera’s project. County staff then worked on a final version of the document that was slated to go before the Planning Commission in September. Even with the meeting only a few months away, Rust said, the company decided it was time to pull the project. 

While county planning staff worked on the final environmental impact review, Aera announced an alternative to its original project last fall in an attempt to make the project more palatable for local residents and decision makers. Under this proposal, the company would have drilled 189 wells instead of the 296 identified in its original plans. This alternative, Rust said at the time, would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater usage, and wildlife habitat impacts. 

Local environmental groups weren’t satisfied, though. They claimed it would result in the same environmental impacts because the company would be producing the same amount of oil. Now, those groups are pleased with the latest news of the project being taken off the table. 

The Environmental Defense Center, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, and Santa Barbara County Action Network issued a joint press release on May 27 celebrating Aera’s decision to withdraw its application.

“Defeating Aera’s attacks on our air, water, and climate means one less environmentally damaging oil project that would have committed our county to decades of fossil fuel energy generation,” Environmental Defense Center Staff Attorney Tara Messing said in the release. “The withdrawal of Aera’s application to produce more dirty oil in Santa Barbara County is a major step toward the phasing out of fossil fuels and fostering a clean renewable energy future.”

In their joint statement, the environmental groups state that they’re turning their attention to Terracore, the company with the only proposed project remaining in the Cat Canyon oil field. Terracore took over ERG’s plans to develop oil wells in West Cat Canyon last June. At a Planning Commission meeting a few months later, the company asked to be removed from the commission’s agenda as it reviews and updates its newly acquired plans. A representative from Terracore didn’t return the Sun’s request for comment on the status of the project prior to press time.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino—whose district includes Cat Canyon—said he wasn’t surprised to hear about Aera withdrawing its application given the current state of the oil industry and the political climate toward oil and gas development in the county. While Lavagnino said he hopes his fellow supervisors would have read the final environmental impact review for Aera’s project before making a decision, he doesn’t believe the majority of the board has an appetite to approve these types of projects. 

Lavagnino—who supports the county pursuing renewable energy but believes local oil and gas production is still necessary—said the county seems to be losing what has been one of its major industries for decades. Historically, oil and gas companies have served as sources of well-paying jobs for many residents, especially in North County, he said.

“We used to be an oil and ag economy, and unfortunately we lost one of those,” Lavagnino said. “When I got on the [Board of Supervisors in 2010], oil companies were five of the top 10 taxpayers in the county. Now there is one in the top 20.”

Lavagnino said although he understands there are many people celebrating the news of Aera and PetroRock withdrawing their applications, the county remains heavily reliant on oil and gas. People still drive cars, fly on planes, and participate in other activities that require oil production, he said.  

“There is going to be a move to more green energy with wind and solar, but there’s still a niche and a bridge that needs to be filled and that’s with the oil industry,” Lavagnino said. “We’re either going to get it here where it’s highly regulated or overseas where it’s not regulated. But for a lot of people, if they don’t see it, they can ignore it.” 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at

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