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Local News

Residents Air Concerns About Recommended Emissions Levels for Oil Project

Public hearing focuses on the latest environmental impact report for Santa Maria Energy's proposed wells and pipeline

A handful of Santa Barbara County residents on Thursday evening took advantage of the first public opportunity to air concerns about the latest environmental impact report involving a proposed Santa Maria Energy oil pipeline project.

The public hearing hosted by the county Planning Development Department lasted less than an hour, and served as a reminder that the public comment period for the Orcutt project’s latest environmental impact report closes at 5 p.m. Aug. 15.

Planning officials explained that the report was being recirculated following direction from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, which voted 3-2 in May to push the proposed project forward but with a stricter carbon-emissions threshold.

The tentative approval — and subsequent delay — added another blow to what has become a more than three-year battle for consent to move forward.

The North County oil company began the lengthy approval process to install 136 production oil wells, connecting pipelines and other oil equipment in its Orcutt location in 2009.

A related project includes installing an 8-mile underground, recycled water pipeline to the Laguna County Sanitation District.

The privately held oil company, founded in 2002, 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. The company uses cyclic steam injection to extract oil because the steam heats the oil in a well to a temperature that produces flow.

On Thursday, deputy planning director Doug Anthony presented the updated environmental report, which includes the planning commission recommended 50 percent emissions threshold, mitigation plans and elaboration on a number of other options.

He explained that the county planning staff still recommends that officials approve the 29 percent threshold, which amounts to 62,480 metric tons per year.

“While it is significant, it is avoidable,” Anthony said of mitigation for environmental impacts. “It will be up the decision makers to come to grips with which threshold they feel comfortable coming forward with.”

Three public speakers were against allowing such high levels of emissions, while one spoke in favor of moving the project forward.

The county shouldn’t put more restrictions and delays on a project that could create so many jobs, said Michael Lopez, a training coordinator and representative with the U.A. Plumbers and Pipefitters Local No. 114.

He brought several local apprentices to the meeting to show support.

“This is the kind of work that’s affecting our community directly,” Lopez said. “These guys' livelihoods are on the line here.”

Ken Hough of the Santa Barbara County Action Network joined the hearing via web cam in Santa Maria, and shared concerns that the county wasn’t putting enough focus into possible environmental mitigation.

Nathan Alley, legal counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, said he was worried that the county’s decision would be precedent-setting and wondered why officials wouldn’t follow what other counties have set in place — keeping projects under the 10,000 metric tons threshold.

All vowed to continue supporting their views when project approval is back before the Planning Commission, most likely sometime in late September.

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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