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County Lowers Environmental Mitigation Fees for Oil Projects Shut Down by Refugio Leak

Reassessment finds reduced risk after 2 production facilities moved onshore after 2015 pipeline breach; Board of Supervisors cuts contributions to CREF program

After the 2015 oil pipeline leak near Refugio State Beach, two offshore energy projects were brought onshore. Because of the significant production reduction, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has slashed the amount of fees the projects are required to pay into the Coastal Resource Environmental Fund. Click to view larger
After the 2015 oil pipeline leak near Refugio State Beach, two offshore energy projects were brought onshore. Because of the significant production reduction, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has slashed the amount of fees the projects are required to pay into the Coastal Resource Environmental Fund. (Noozhawk file photo)

In the aftermath of the May 2015 Plains All-American Pipeline oil leak at Refugio State Beach, two offshore oil projects shifted their operations, along with much of their associated risk of environmental degradation, onshore.

In response, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted quickly and unanimously Tuesday to lower the environmental mitigation fees the projects are required to pay into the Coastal Resource Environmental Fund, or CREF.

The fund, which was established in 1987, specifically addresses environmental impacts to recreation, tourism, aesthetics and environmentally sensitive resources.

Freeport–McMoRan’s Point Arguello Unit and ExxonMobil’s Santa Ynez Unit, two groups of platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, halted production after the Refugio leak and moved much of their operations onshore.

The county found that the two projects now pose a significantly lower risk of environmental degradation, warranting lower mitigation fees.

The CREF and the three energy projects it covers are normally reassessed at five-year intervals, with the last reassessment done in 2012 and the next scheduled for 2017.

Because the operational changes to the two units were significant, county staff undertook a 2015–2017 reassessment for them and determined that they deserve lower fees for this year and next.

The units operated for half the year in 2015, before the Refugio leak led to their shutdown, which eliminated their eligibility for any sort of retroactive fee reduction.

The Board of Supervisors’ vote also amended the CREF’s guidelines so that any future circumstance that warrants considerable fee changes triggers a midcycle reassessment.

Point Arguello, which paid $250,900 in 2015, is to pay $125,450 this year and next. Santa Ynez’s $231,600 from 2015 will be lowered to $96,500 for 2016 and 2017.

Point Pedernales, another Freeport–McMoRan unit that was unaffected by the Refugio incident, will continue paying $193,000 annually through at least 2017.

Between the three projects, the CREF took in $675,500 last year, which will drop to $414,950 this year and next. The fees were an original condition for the projects to receive their operations permits.

Cities, county agencies, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions receive the overwhelming bulk of the CREF fees.

According to data from the county Planning and Development Department’s Energy Division, since 1988, $10.2 million, or 46 percent, has gone to acquiring coastal properties or conservation easements. Another $8.4 million, or 38 percent, has been spent improving or developing coastal parks and other coastal-related facilities.

The board granted each of the five organizations and institutions that applied for 2016 CREF money partial funding. The six total projects requested a combined $791,000 when only $391,000 was available, county staff said.

The recipients include The Santa Cruz Island Foundation, which seeks to incorporate the film West of the West: Tales from California’s Channel Islands into local school curriculum; UC Santa Barbara, for its North Campus Open Space Public Access Design Project and Coal Oil Point Reserve Education and Conservation Center; the Trust for Public Land, which is working to acquire Gaviota Cove; the county Community Services Department, for replacement of restrooms at Jalama Beach; and the Guadalupe–Nipomo Dunes Center, for archaeological research and excavation.​

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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