Friday, March 23 , 2018, 10:39 am | Fair 60º


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Planning Commission Vote Delays Santa Maria Energy Pipeline Project

Oil company 'disappointed' with county officials' decision to raise the carbon-emissions threshold

Santa Maria Energy has been fighting for approval of its oil pipeline project for more than three years, but the way in which Santa Barbara County officials voted to move forward with the project Wednesday evoked nothing short of disappointment.

While the county Planning Commission voted 3-2 on Wednesday to approve the Orcutt project, commissioners altered and made stricter a staff-recommended carbon-emissions threshold.

The change, opposed by commissioners Dan Blough and Larry Ferini, makes the commission approval tentative and subject to further delay via recirculation of an environmental impact report.

“We’re disappointed,” Beth Marino, Santa Maria Energy’s vice president of legal and corporate affairs, told Noozhawk after the vote.

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

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.

Commissioners considered the project Wednesday after continuing the decision last week so that staff could better address environmental impacts, including oil seeps, a western location alternative, oak tree removal, native grasslands and the emissions threshold.

Emissions — the main sticking point last week — again dominated discussion.

Santa Maria Energy supporters maintained that commissioners could determine an emissions threshold on a case-by-case basis, in this particular situation setting the 62,480 metric tons threshold per year, or a 29-percent capture.

Environmentalists said they appreciated sincere efforts made by the oil company, but reiterated last week’s fears that commissioners would be setting an unofficial precedent for emissions standards used in future projects.

Some recommended zero emissions or at least a 90-percent capture, or 10,000 metric tons per year.

What the commission tentatively approved was a 50-percent threshold.

Commissioners said they agreed on all points of the staff report, minus the emissions, and did not want to intentionally delay the project longer.

Blough went so far as to recommend the commission either try to make a motion to approve the project without setting an emissions threshold – leaving that for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors – or to approve a different emissions threshold without re-circulating the environmental report to public.

“I think it’s right when we have a decision to make and we’re not in agreement,” Blough said of sending the emissions decision up to supervisors. “We’re not the elected people. We’re the appointed people. Let’s get it there now.”

County legal counsel cautioned that moving forward without recirculation would open the commission up to a lawsuit. Blough responded that he believed the commission could be sued in either scenario.

After Ferini and Blough failed to pass the staff recommended 29-percent threshold in a 2-3 vote, the remaining commissioners voted in favor of taking more time to examine environmental effects.

Commissioner C. Michael Cooney asked for Santa Maria Energy’s patience so that a “greater consensus” could be gathered.

After the vote, Marino said she couldn’t say whether operating under the new emissions levels was possible or realistic.

She said oil company officials would continue working and waiting what would likely be months until the project is readdressed.

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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