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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 1st, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 8

The first time

A huge oil development project spurs questions about how Santa Barbara County regulates greenhouse gases

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

Any use of the phrase “greenhouse gases” prompted groaning and contemptuous laughter from the gallery of North County residents watching the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission meeting from Santa Maria on April 24.

It was as if the crowd were waiting for the dreaded emissions discussion to hold up progress on Santa Maria Energy’s plans to expand its oil production operations. And they were right to be worried, as planning commissioners opted 4-0-1, with commissioner Dan Blough abstaining, to continue the matter until their May 1 meeting.

At stake is a plan to expand the Orcutt Oil Field project—which already has four years’ worth of work behind it—from 26 “exploratory” oil wells to 136 production wells. Plans also call for installation of an oil pipeline to carry crude from the field to an existing Phillips 66 pipeline and construction of a water pipeline to bring recycled water from the Laguna County Sanitation District to the field for cyclic steam injection.


WAITING FOR OIL:
Santa Maria Energy supporters are hoping for more wells at the Orcutt Oil Field site, an oil pipeline, and a recycled water pipeline—but those plans could be held up by a discussion about how Santa Barbara County handles greenhouse gas emissions.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY SANTA MARIA ENERGY

“This is a very important first instance for Santa Barbara County,” Planning Commission chairman Joan Hartman said at the meeting. “[Santa Maria Energy has] gone a long way to address the concerns, [but] there are just a couple more.”

While red-legged frog and tiger salamander habitats were brought up as issues, the commission seemed satisfied with the mitigation measures proposed in the development plan. It was greenhouse gases that were the sticking point for at least three commissioners; namely, they sought to determine what was an acceptable tonnage for the year and how to adequately comply with California’s requirement to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990s levels by 2050.

The issue of how many metric tons of greenhouse gases Santa Maria Energy is legally allowed to emit, should it develop the 32-acre site further, is a murky one. Not only has Santa Barbara County not previously dealt with a similar project anywhere close to this size, but the county also hasn’t set a specific precedent that states how much greenhouse gases an entity can emit.

If the Orcutt Oil Field is developed as planned, Santa Maria Energy would produce more than 87,000 metric tons per year at peak capacity.

Michael Chiacos of the Community Environmental Council told planning commissioners that the development plan would make Santa Maria Energy the largest greenhouse gas producer in the county.

“This project needs to mitigate all their emissions or get down to the 10,000-metric-ton precedent that many counties are considering,” Chiacos said at the meeting during the public comment period.

Along with other project naysayers, Chiacos asked the county to formally adopt a metric-tons cap and require the oil producer to bring emissions down to zero. While some counties in the Bay Area and Southern California have a cap set at 10,000 metric tons per year per business, Santa Barbara chooses to regulate emissions on a case-by-case basis.

To put the numbers into perspective, Brian Schafritz of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District said a car that racks up 15,000 miles a year produces seven metric tons. California produced 518 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2010. Although he couldn’t give the Sun an exact number for Santa Barbara County, he said it’s a very small percentage of what’s produced in California.

Schafritz also said the Pollution Control District is satisfied with the steps proposed in Santa Maria Energy’s development plan to help reach the state’s greenhouse gases limit. County staff echoed the district’s thoughts, and recommended the Planning Commission approve the plan.

Mitigation would take the form of what is termed “29 percent below business as usual.” So, 29 percent of 87,000 metric tons somehow needs to be cancelled out.

As it stands in the development plan, the oil producer will buy greenhouse gas credits from a business that has “extra” credits through California’s Cap-and-Trade program to make up the majority of the difference. A forest of 400 oak trees has also been planted on the Orcutt site to help counteract carbon dioxide emissions.

While that’s not good enough for folks who feel as Chiacos does, it’s plenty of effort for others.

“I’m pleading with the county not to hold this project hostage,” Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB), told commissioners via video feed from Santa Maria.

Other North County residents who were worried the project would be stalled in the Planning Commission stage echoed Caldwell. Project supporters pointed to jobs, money, and the energy company’s clean track record as reasons to approve the project and send it to county supervisors.

“They’re doing everything they can to do this the right way,” supporter Terri Stricklin said via video. “The bottom line is this county needs money, it needs jobs, and Santa Maria Energy can provide that.”

Planning commissioners continued the matter to the May 1 meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. and will be broadcast in Santa Maria at the Government Center in the Social Services Building’s Orcutt Room.

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