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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 2nd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 17 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 17

Controversy and confusion

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

A Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District Board discussion about an emission reduction credit bank heated up at the June board meeting when conflict of interest charges started rolling off the lips of board members. 

The charges were eventually leveled against Lompoc City Council member Ashley Costa, who is one of the elected representatives who serve on the 10-member board alongside Santa Barbara County supervisors. Costa also works with Santa Maria Energy, providing contract services in government and legal affairs, among other things.

Costa’s work with the energy company is what county Supervisor Salud Carbajal said sparked the charges. Carbajal said he felt it was necessary to inform the public about her work with Santa Maria Energy because it might be a conflict of interest with her duties on the board. 

Carbajal said he read about Costa’s day job in an article on the website Mission and State. He chanced across the article after a board meeting in May where the same emission reduction credit was discussed.

“It was an ‘aha’ moment,” Carbajal said. “Ms. Costa was really aggressive in trying to get this thing moved forward ... and I was just incredulous.”

Costa wasn’t the only board member at the meeting who wanted to hear conclusions from a workgroup on the credit matter rather than table it. However, Carbajal said she was the loudest. He added that Santa Maria Energy could potentially benefit from those credits being discussed.

Santa Maria Energy is at the tail end of developing an environmental impact report with the county for a 110-well project in Orcutt. That project would bring the total oil well count on its lease to 136, and it could also mean the energy company would be emitting more than 87,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. 

Those greenhouse gases emissions would not be affected by the emission reduction credits currently up for debate. Those credits would be set aside as part of an amendment or rule in the Clean Air Act, which is responsible for keeping the county in check with California laws governing ozone causing gases. 

“We don’t meet the state threshold for clean air or ozone,” district director Dave Van Mullem said. “Not high altitude ozone, but ozone at our breathable levels.”

In this context, ozone is visible as smog. It can be harmful to the public, which is one reason why the county is responsible for managing how much ozone is emitted locally.

The credit bank would be set up for mitigation of the two precursors that cause ozone. He said those precursors, nitrous oxide and reactive organic gases, are emitted by things like diesel generators, cars, trucks, laying down asphalt, and even applying turpentine.

Van Mullem also said that nothing in Santa Maria Energy’s expansion plan gives them a need for ozone mitigation credits. What those credits are needed for are new development projects and things like school and hospital expansions.

Credits are created when an existing business puts in something like a new generator, which reduces the emissions they produce. Those credits can then be used by the same business for future expansion or purchased by another business.

The problem in the county at the moment is that projects don’t have a way to mitigate for emissions above the county’s 10-ton ozone emissions threshold. The reasons for that are twofold: one, there are very few credits for sale, and two, the ones that are out there cost at least $115,000 per credit. The purpose of creating a bank of credits would be to make it easier and cheaper for development projects to come to Santa Barbara County.

As to whether Costa does have a conflict of interest, Van Mullem said he couldn’t comment and that it was up to the Fair Political Practices Commission to determine.

Costa told the Sun she’s been open and honest about what she does and where she works and doesn’t believe there is a conflict of interest.

“If it had a direct impact on Santa Maria Energy, I would absolutely, no question, recuse myself [from the vote],” Costa said.