Santa Maria Energy supporters breathed a collective sign of relief Wednesday afternoon as Santa Barbara County planners gave final approval to an oil-development and pipeline project that has spent four years going through the decision-making process.
At the end of an emotional, hours-long public hearing, the county Planning Commission certified a final environmental impact report for the project, allowing for a 29-percent carbon emissions threshold — a major sticking point for local environmental groups.
The decision came on a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Joan Hartmann and C. Michael Cooney dissenting in favor of more-stringent emissions standards.
The North County oil company in 2009 began the lengthy approval process to install 136 production oil wells, connecting pipelines and other oil equipment on property south of Orcutt.
A related project that includes installing an 8-mile underground, recycled water pipeline to the Laguna County Sanitation District also was approved Wednesday.
The privately held company, founded in 2002, already extracts oil from 75 wells drilled into Monterey shale and 26 wells drilled into a diatomite layer in Santa Barbara County on 4,000 leased acres at the Orcutt Field.
Santa Maria Energy uses cyclic steam injection to extract oil because the steam heats the oil in a well to a temperature that produces flow.
The nearly 50 people who spoke during the exhaustive public comment seemed as split on the issue as the commissioners, with about half for and the others against because of environmental impacts.
During a brief presentation, Deputy Planning Director Doug Anthony explained that the commission already had tentatively approved the project in May when it voted 3-2 in favor, pending recirculation of a new EIR that accounted for an emissions threshold of 50 percent.
He added that staff still recommended the 29-percent threshold, which amounts to 62,480 metric tons per year.
Anthony also walked commissioners through carbon-mitigation plans, cap-and-trade credits, carbon intensity and the effects of a zero-net-emissions threshold and the 10,000 metric tons standard used by other regional governments.
Santa Maria Energy officials presented information to explain how property taxes could be affected by the project, and attempted to dispel figures showing that the oil company should make further mitigations because of inflated profits.
Public comments went back and forth, some arguing that the decision would be precedent setting while others contending that future projects dealing with green-house-gas emissions would be looked at on a case-by-case basis since the county has no established standard.
A petition with 2,500 signatures in favor of the project was presented shortly before Katie Davis presented 2,700 more signatures in opposition gathered by Climate Group 350 Santa Barbara.
“Imagine all these people behind me,” Davis said, unraveling connected sheets of paper filled with names. “Where does it end? We can’t have it both ways.”
One speaker even dressed in a Darth Vader costumer — calling himself Darth Fracker — to sarcastically speak out in favor of the project because it was “evil.”
Many Santa Maria residents spoke about the positive economic impacts of the project, which would add jobs and generate millions in tax revenue for an area hit hard by unemployment.
Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce President Bob Hatch emphasized what the increase in property taxes could do for schools in the North County.
Project protestors focused on the need to invest in renewable, alternative resources to crude oil.
“To suggest that fossil oil is the only way to propel our cars is also absurd,” said Sandra Nash, a longtime Santa Barbara resident. “We have the money and the need. We simply don’t have the courage to stand up to traditional oil industry.”
Commissioners asked staff more technical questions during deliberations to follow up public comment concerns.
Commissioner Daniel Blough, who represents the Fifth District, said he worried that companies would decide to take their business elsewhere, and suggested approving a 16-percent threshold as required via state legislation.
“My concern is that this is precedent-setting,” Blough said. “I’m very concerned about the money the county of Santa Barbara is not going to get.”
Second District Commissioner Cecilia Brown, who previously voted for the 50-percent threshold, said she was happy to see a more-informative EIR document than was available in May.
“I do believe in climate change,” she said. "I think we have some obligation to mitigate those emissions as we can. We’re at a point in time where we really don’t know. There are compromises to be made.”
Commissioners Hartmann, from the Third District, and Cooney, from the First District, said they were in favor of the project, but wanted to see a 10,000-metric-ton threshold.
“Our job is to not assess what brings the most money to the county coffers or to the schools or even to the Community Action Commission for its energy reduction programs,” Cooney said. “We’re all going to be harmed if we don’t make the right decision today.”
Commissioner Larry Ferrini, who represents the Orcutt area and the Fourth District, agreed with Blough’s concerns that stringent standards could scare businesses away in the future.
After making a failed motion for a 16-percent threshold, Ferrini made a second motion to approve the 29-percent standard — one that energy officials have long agreed to.
A short time later, Bob Poole, Santa Maria Energy's public and government affairs manager, said his company is happy with the decision, and can now begin acquiring permits to move forward.
“We are very pleased with the motion today,” Poole said. “The decision was well deliberated, and we hope that that’s fully considered before someone decides to appeal.”
Nathan Alley, attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, said his clients would consider whether to file an appeal in the coming days.