About two miles off Highway 135, just beyond Orcutt Hill, two shuttle buses bumped along a dirt road toward Santa Maria Energy oil fields on a recent afternoon.
Interested community members and company officials were en route to 4,000 leased acres at the Orcutt Field, where privately held Santa Maria Energy has been extracting oil for about seven years.
Passengers were some of dozens taking advantage of the free monthly tours, which are part of Santa Maria Energy’s outreach effort to let Santa Barbara County residents know what’s going on in their backyard.
Company president David Pratt said the tours, encompassed in a presentation called “Petroleum 101,” have been going on for the past 15 months or so.
The ultimate goal, he told Noozhawk, is to let a local oil company share its side of a narrative that often paints the industry in a negative light.
“We are proud of what we do, and we are proud of the way we do it,” Pratt said during the presentation at the company’s headquarters at 2811 Airpark Drive in Santa Maria. “We know that oil is a controversial subject.”
Pratt said he hopes to balance the conversation, especially while a proposal to expand his company’s efforts in the North County remains in the pipeline.
Santa Maria Energy, founded in 2002, currently extracts oil in Santa Barbara County only.
The company’s efforts, combined with those of others in Santa Barbara County, produce 9,000 barrels of oil per day, Pratt said, equaling $8 million a year in revenue for the county.
In 2009, Santa Maria Energy began a lengthy approval process to install 136 production oil wells, connecting pipelines and other oil equipment in the Orcutt location. A related project includes installing an eight-mile underground, recycled water pipeline to the Laguna County Sanitation District.
With that project still in the approval stages, the company is using the presentations to better inform the public of its processes and the obstacles that are delaying development.
Kevin Yung, Santa Maria Energy’s operations manager, said during the presentation that the company uses cyclic steam injection to extract oil. He said injecting steam into a well heats the oil to a temperature that produces flow.
“Technology is key to this,” he said.
Yung said oil companies have to consider geology, land, development and financial funding before requesting approval from regulatory agencies.
A main pillar of Santa Maria Energy’s argument is the United States’ inevitable growing need for oil, which could create more local jobs.
Presenters emphasized that 94 percent of U.S. transportation fuels come from oil, and more than 80 percent of energy demand is met by fossil fuels, which include oil.
California was described as an “energy island” because oil consumed in the state travels from foreign nations via tankers in the Pacific Ocean.
“Why do we spend billions of dollars that could be spent here?” Pratt asked.
During the tour, Santa Maria Energy officials said they are hoping to get their oil and water transport trucks off the road soon with approval of their project pipelines.
As for when that might happen, officials said they couldn’t guess.