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Aera Energy’s East Cat Canyon Oil Project to Enter Environmental Review Process

Santa Barbara County to hold scoping meeting on plan to redevelop historic 2,100-acre site southeast of Santa Maria

As Aera Energy’s East Cat Canyon proposal moves into the environmental review phase, the company has opened an office in Santa Maria, where a glass room divider says “Welcome to East Cat Canyon,” and a meeting room wall includes a mural touting the project’s benefits. Click to view larger
As Aera Energy’s East Cat Canyon proposal moves into the environmental review phase, the company has opened an office in Santa Maria, where a glass room divider says “Welcome to East Cat Canyon,” and a meeting room wall includes a mural touting the project’s benefits. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Aera Energy’s plan to revive oil drilling at an East Canyon Canyon site will move to a new phase with the kickoff of the study of the project’s potential environmental impacts.

The Santa Barbara County Planning and Development will hold a scoping meeting Tuesday for the East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Plan Project to collect comments about what issues should be analyzed during the environmental review.

The meeting will start at 6 p.m. at the Betteravia Government Center Board of Supervisors conference room, 511 E. Lakeside Parkway.

Last year, Bakersfield-based Aera Energy filed an application to re-establish oil production at a 2,108-acre site some 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria by using a thermally enhanced recovery process. County staff deemed the application complete, leading to the start of the Environmental Impact Report phase.

“All of the issues around anything associated with the project will be studied as part of the EIR,” said Susan Hersberger, Aera public affairs project manager. “That’s, I think, the beauty of the EIR. It’s a very rigorous process.”

County planning officials said in a scoping meeting notice that the session would focus on environmental concerns related to the project, ways to minimize potential impacts and possible alternatives to the proposed project.

“It’s because of the rigor of the EIR process and because of all of the different laws and regulations that must be satisfied to grant the permit requested, we are very comfortable in saying the project will produce energy, but it it will produce energy while protecting human health and the environment,” Hersberger said.

In all, the company plans to add 296 wells with 141 of those being oil wells and a similar number for steam injection, water injection and observation wells.

“The field will be produced using steam injection, which is a very extensive and common method of enhanced oil recovery in California and all over the world,” Hersberger said.

Steam is used to loosen very thick and viscous oil, allowing it to flow into the well bore so the pump can bring it to the surface, she said.

The company has no plans to conduct hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as part of the East Cat Canyon project, she added.

Water to be converted to steam will be recycled produced water — water that comes when oil is extracted from the ground, with no fresh water used for oil production activities.

Aera Energy is seeking to re-establish oil production at an East Cat Canyon site, 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria. The Santa Barbara County Planning and Department will hold a scoping meeting for the environmental review of the proposal Tuesday. Click to view larger
Aera Energy is seeking to re-establish oil production at an East Cat Canyon site, 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria. The Santa Barbara County Planning and Department will hold a scoping meeting for the environmental review of the proposal Tuesday. (Aera Energy map)

“When you extract oil, water comes with it, which is naturally occurring in the oil reservoir,” Hersberger said. “It’s not a drinking water reservoir at all. ... We call that produced water because it’s produced with the oil.”

Some fresh water will be required for the office, fire suppression equipment and dust control.

The development calls for approximately 72 well pads, including new ones and restoration of existing pads at the site, which is part of a historic oil producing area.

The East Cat Canyon site hosted oil drilling for more than 100 years before the wells were decommissioned in the 1990s.

According to the proposal, Aera would restore and add more than nine miles of access roads, install a steam generation facility and build processing facilities. Also planned are buildings to house office, multipurpose, warehouse, maintenance and facility control operations.

Once the field is operational, Aera expects to produce 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, per day initially, and up to 10,000 barrels, or 420,000 gallons, a day when production peaks.

The project also calls for a new natural gas pipeline that will originate at Southern California Gas Co.’s Graciosa Road facility and use existing rights-of-way to reach the East Cat Canyon location.

Oil extracted from the ground would be trucked from East Cat Canyon to an existing Kern County pipeline that would carry it to refineries in the Santa Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles. Those trucks would travel north along Highway 101 to Highway 46 East, Hersberger added.

No pipelines or rail spurs exist at the East Cat Canyon site for getting oil to refineries.

“Trucking is really about the only option at this point,” Hersberger said, adding that the project will utilize state-of-the-art tankers.

To make way for the oil production facilities, some 7 percent of the oak trees that would be removed as part of the project would be replaced as required by county regulations, which call for either a 3-to-1 or 10-to-1 replacement, depending on tree size and age.

The plan calls for creating a special conservation area on 700 acres of the site, dedicated for replacement oak trees and habitat for other species.

The project will benefit Santa Barbara County’s economy, according to a UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project study conducted for Aera.

That study determined the East Cat Canyon project’s economic impact — based on direct, indirect and induced impacts — would be $1.3 billion over the span of the 30-year project. It also will generate $250 million in assorted taxes, including sales, property and federal taxes, Hersberger said.

Once operational, Aera expects 160 workers at the site with considerably more during construction phases.

The environmental review process is expected to last 12 to 18 months and will culminate with the project heading to the county Planning Commission.

If the project is approved, the construction phase likely would last three years before production begins.

Aera, which is jointly owned by affiliates of Shell and ExxonMobil, employs approximately 1,370 people. The company is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the oil and gas produced in California.

“While we are relatively new to Santa Barbara County, we’re not new to California,” Hersberger said if the 20-year-old company.

In addition to Kern County, Aera has operations in Ventura County and in San Ardo in southern Monterey County.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully 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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