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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 9:06 pm | Fair 48º


Katie Davis: Regulatory Corruption Threatens Climate Progress in Santa Barbara County

The theme of Earth Day this year was “Stand up for Climate,” but one booth in particular illustrated the difficulties we face in acting on that incredibly urgent call to action when fossil fuel interests are so deeply entrenched in electoral politics.

Many of the thousands of people descending on Alameda Park on April 18-19 checked in “car free” at a booth operated by the Air Pollution Control District, an agency that features an adorable kid hugging a globe on its website and whose worthy mission is to “protect the people and environment of Santa Barbara County from the harmful effects of air pollution.”

Sounds good, but behind the scenes the APCD has been busy setting extremely generous greenhouse gas allowances for new projects, such as oil drilling, that would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas pollution in the county — even if they could convince everyone in Santa Barbara to give up their cars. This is because oil companies have recently applied for nearly 700 new oil wells in Santa Barbara County using steam and water flood injection, the most greenhouse-gas intensive form of oil production in the world.

It turns out that the APCD’s Citizens Advisory Council, appointed by elected officials, is dominated by people who work for oil companies. Just before Earth Day, they voted on a threshold for greenhouse gas pollution preferred by oil companies and that exempts most projects from any local requirement to mitigate emissions. The motion was made by someone who doesn’t believe in climate change and passed by people with a direct conflict of interest in the outcome. That’s right. The APCD lets the polluters decide what level of pollution is significant.

The recommendation of this council was then formally adopted by the APCD board at a special meeting on Thursday, held deliberately when none of the South County supervisors could attend. The North County elected officials voted in one big, pro-oil block, with Santa Barbara and Carpinteria dissenting.

This demonstrates exactly why we cannot trust claims that the oil industry is well regulated. Once the oil industry becomes entrenched in an area, they co-opt elected officials and regulatory agencies through lobbying and campaign contributions. That’s true at a state level, where the Oil and Gas Division of California Department of Conservation is in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency for permitting toxic oil wastewater injections into groundwater aquifers protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and it is true locally, where our air is being “protected” by the polluters themselves.

However, there is also good news and reason for optimism. Santa Barbara County is setting its own threshold for greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources that would apply to most new oil projects in unincorporated areas and pre-empt the APCD threshold. The county Planning Commission is recommending that new industrial projects mitigate greenhouse gas emissions above 1,000 tons (the equivalent of emissions from 200 cars).

While this is higher than the “net zero” increase in emissions recommended by local environmental and community planning organizations and currently used locally by the State Lands Commission, it is far better than the oil-friendly APCD threshold.

Concerned citizens can come to the supervisors meeting at the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara, fourth floor, at 9 a.m. May 19 and ask Supervisors to lower, not increase, emissions. Cities could also choose to set their own thresholds as well, thereby minimizing the damage done by the APCD.

This month Santa Barbara County has an opportunity to become a climate leader. In May, the county supervisors could enact a Climate Action Plan, fund a study of Community Choice Energy, which could dramatically increase renewable energy, and set a low threshold for greenhouse gas emissions from industrial polluters. If all this happens, we could turn Earth Day words into real action — despite the co-option of the APCD by oil companies.

— Katie Davis is a member of the Air Pollution Control District Citizens Advisory Council and chairwoman of the Sierra Club Santa Barbara Group.

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