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Board of Supervisors OKs Santa Maria Energy Oil Project With Stricter Conditions

On 3-2 vote, board upholds environmentalists' appeal, but allows the plan to move forward with lower carbon-emissions threshold

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors sided with environmental groups Tuesday night in upholding an appeal of a North County oil-development and pipeline project, requiring the proposal to move forward with stricter greenhouse-gas emissions.

Environmental Defense Center attorney Nathan Alley addresses the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors during Tuesday's appeal hearing regarding Santa Maria Energy's request for expansion of an oil field. (Frank Cowan / Noozhawk photo)
Environmental Defense Center attorney Nathan Alley addresses the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors during Tuesday's appeal hearing regarding Santa Maria Energy's request for expansion of an oil field. (Frank Cowan / Noozhawk photo)

Nearly six hours after the heated showdown over the Santa Maria Energy project began, the supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of the project, but under a "10,000 business-as-usual" carbon-emissions standard instead of the 29-percent threshold that the county Planning Commission had approved Sept. 25.

Supervisors Salud Carbajal, Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf voted in favor of the appeal filed last month by the Environmental Defense Center on behalf of several environmental groups. Supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino — who represent the Orcutt area most affected by the project — dissented.

The news was unwelcome for Santa Maria Energy officials, who have spent the past four years navigating the county's regulatory decision-making process to install 136 production oil wells, connecting pipelines and other oil equipment on 4,000 acres of land it leases south of Orcutt.

With modified approval, Santa Maria Energy officials are now tasked with deciding whether the project remains economically feasible.

More than 100 speakers patiently waited through nearly five hours of public comment, some admittedly sitting until their bums were numb, and most from posts in or just outside an overflow room at Santa Maria’s Betteravia Government Administration Building.

After a brief presentation from county staff, representatives of the environmental groups who challenged the Planning Commission's decision explained why the 29-percent carbon emissions threshold wasn’t a strict-enough standard.

Appellants called for consideration of global consequences caused by the local project, emphasizing that they were not against the Santa Maria Energy project but in favor of full mitigation of all greenhouse-gas emissions, or at least the 10,000 threshold adopted by other governments in the region.

“Santa Maria Energy is a popular company in this area,” said Santa Barbara County Action Network president Ken Hough, who looked out in the audience at yellow-clad oil company backers wielding signs of project support.

Goleta City Councilman Michael Bennett addresses the Board of Supervisors during its appeal hearing on the Santa Maria Energy oil-development project. (Frank Cowan / Noozhawk photo)
Goleta City Councilman Michael Bennett addresses the Board of Supervisors during its appeal hearing on the Santa Maria Energy oil-development project. (Frank Cowan / Noozhawk photo)

“They’re good people,” he continued. “But, please, remember this appeal is about the greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s not about the people or the company. Mitigations are feasible.”

Beth Marino, Santa Maria Energy’s vice president of legal and corporate affairs, gave a brief presentation opposing the appeal, calling the oil company’s project part of an overall emissions-reduction solution.

She noted that privately held Santa Maria Energy already extracts oil from 75 wells drilled into Monterey shale and 26 wells drilled into a diatomite layer in Santa Barbara County at its Orcutt Field.

Public comment kicked off with oil endorsements from elected officials in Santa Maria, Lompoc, Solvang, Buellton, Goleta and Guadalupe, some of whom described the project as “a vital shot in the arm” and a jobs and revenue generator for the county.

Opinions seemed divided along geographic lines, with one speaker asking the supervisors to not let the “noisy minority” in Santa Barbara ruin the economic opportunities for Santa Maria Valley residents.

Oil supporters stacked the list of local speakers, who got one or two minutes to say their piece.

Many referred to the oil debate as a “civil war” between the North County and the South Coast, accusing the other side of being out of tune with affected communities.

Opponents countered that the number of jobs wouldn’t change if more emissions were mitigated.

At the start of supervisors' deliberations, Adam made a motion to deny the appeal in favor of the 15.3-percent threshold required by California law’s latest scoping plan.

Lavagnino seconded the motion, which the other three supervisors voted down.

“I just don’t think that going to the 16 percent is nearly enough,” Farr said. “There’s certainly no doubt in my mind that global warming is real.”

Wolf said she saw the 10,000-metric-ton threshold as reaching a “balance” for emissions that would affect local air quality.

“If we move forward on this project ... we’re going to have to do it with our eyes wide open,” she said. “We want to improve the quality of life in our county.”

Lavagnino gave an impassioned speech, saying he was upset with the “fear-mongering” and “scare tactics” used by environmental groups, which he said didn’t even bother contacting him because they knew they already had the necessary votes to win their appeal.

He called out local environmental groups for not bringing forward their own alternative-energy projects, and pleaded with Carbajal to side with the project at current emission levels.

“You’re not hurting an oil company today; you’re hurting a community,” Lavagnino said to applause. “Basically what you’re doing is forcing Santa Maria Energy to write a bigger check.”

Carbajal thanked everyone for coming out before joining the final majority vote in support of stricter emissions.

With conditioned approval, the supervisors approved the final environmental impact report and a related project to install an eight-mile underground, recycled water pipeline to the Laguna County Sanitation District.

The decision also started a 30-day clock in which Santa Maria Energy officials must decide whether to file a lawsuit against the board action, said Bob Poole, the company's public and government affairs manager.

After the vote, Poole said the company was disappointed the supervisors negated the Planning Commission decision in favor of emissions levels that are 4½ times stricter than state requirements.

“We got an approved project, but we have to live in the real world, and we don’t know if it’s economically able to work,” he said. “We have to do the numbers. This decision was not based on balance; this decision was based on the politics of greenhouse gas, and that’s too bad.

“Our company is based on this project; we’re not big oil. Businesses need certainty and predictability, and what has happened with this decision is it has created significant uncertainty.”

No legal action means Santa Maria Energy will either move forward with the project with stricter emissions standards — purchasing more credits — or abandon it altogether.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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