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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 4:44 am | Fair 50º


County Supervisors Call for Tougher Drilling Standards

The board will send a letter asking the federal Minerals Management Service to address the severity and frequency of oil spills

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to send a letter to President Barack Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality that, in essence, calls for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service to face tougher environmental review standards.

While the letter — penned by Doug Anthony, deputy director of the county’s Energy Division — makes brief mention of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it asks MMS to address not only the severity of spills, but the frequency.

“[The letter] may be a response to what’s happening in the Gulf [of Mexico], but what we’re also looking at and what [Anthony] is talking about is what happens here [in Santa Barbara County],” board chairwoman and Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said during the board’s discussion of the letter. “Aside from the possibility of a big blowout, what is the impact of these smaller spills that we do see here?”

The South County supervisors — Wolf, Salud Carbajal of the First District and Doreen Farr of the Third District — voted to send the letter, while the North County supervisors — the Fourth District’s Joni Gray and the Fifth District’s Joe Centeno — abstained from the vote. Centeno said he first needed more information.

The 1969 blowout at Unocal Platform A dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, but oil companies operating in the region have maintained that their safety records have since been relatively trouble free. It is noteworthy, though, that companies such as Greka Energy — which took over a number of aging leases in Santa Barbara County in 1999 and consequently spilled thousands of gallons in a number of small leaks — essentially put a black stain on that record.

David Smyser, a North County attorney and one-time candidate for the Third District supervisor seat, said at Tuesday’s hearing that he worried that limiting offshore oil and gas production would destroy the transition California and the rest of the country needs to become less dependent on fossil fuels.

“Over the past several years, I’ve heard this board argue that our state and nation needs to move toward a renewable energy, yet even the best projections from the Energy Administration see the U.S. dependent upon oil and gas for a majority of our national energy needs well beyond the next decade,” Smyser said, adding that putting a damper on federal oil leases would choke an economic engine that provides California with thousands of high-paying jobs. “This bridge to renewable energy is oil and gas production.”

Previously, the majority of the Board of Supervisors elected to remove a moratorium on drilling in county waters, but Santa Barbara County has a long history of calling for stronger regulation of the oil and gas industry, according to Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center.

“Thanks to the work of the county of Santa Barbara, we have moved the realm of environmental review further than in other regions of the country,” she said, adding that MMS performs environmental reviews for seismic exploration surveys in its Pacific region, but not in other jurisdictions. “Some of the models we have developed here would be good in other areas.”

Weighing in that the MMS’ 30-day deadline to review new projects is not long enough to perform a proper environmental review, Krop suggested that board members focus not only on potential offshore development projects, but on existing ones. More specifically, she said it would be beneficial to evaluate what could be done better in those operations, and examine the impact of MMS’ 2005 closure of its Santa Maria inspection office.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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