Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 8:02 pm | Fair 63º


Local News

Supervisors Get Update on Good, Bad and Future of Oil and Gas Operations in Santa Barbara County

Despite her best lobbying efforts, Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf couldn’t convince her colleagues that the county should change how it defines a high-risk oil and gas operator.

“It’s shocking you have one operator with so many violations,” Wolf said during a Tuesday staff presentation of oil and gas operations in the county. “Even a crack can become significant.”

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors requested a report from the county’s Planning and Development Department on the status of onshore oil and gas facilities and pipelines, including an update on compliance for existing operations.

During the update, it was revealed there have been 161 violations issued in an almost three-year period, with 145 of those directed toward a single operator: Greka Oil & Gas.

The company’s high was this year, with a total 87 violations.

Violations included both emissions and administrative offenses, such as failing to operate equipment in compliance with local, state or federal regulations; failing to keep records; and failing to monitor operations. Other violations included signage and failing to clear vegetation.

The county has an ordinance to impose notice of violations on what it deems high-risk operators, which are those operators that have had two spills within a 12-month period and/or don’t comply with sections of the ordinance causing significant life and safety issues.

Diane Black, the county’s assistant planning and development director, called the numerous violations Greka racked up between 2015 and 2017 as “minor” and said they were important but didn’t rise to the level of life and safety issues.

“The ordinance is to get (high-risk) operators back in compliance,” she told the supervisors, referring to the legal mechanism targeting those operators that spill outside containment.

“We feel we are in good standing.”

Wolf felt the county needed something on the books to deal with violators such as Greka, which she believes isn’t operating responsibly in light of how many infractions the company has incurred just in the last three years.

“It seems like there should be another level of enforcement ... (for) not being a responsible operator,” she said. “With this many violations, there needs to be something in between. There have to be consequences.”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who has been on the losing end of several votes rejecting North County oil projects, did not agree that the county should change how it defines high-risk operators, in part, because no operator has triggered use of the ordinance.

“Changing it at this point would seem a reach because we haven’t had anyone in there,” he noted.

County petroleum staff inspects more than 2,450 existing onshore wells and 125 related facilities annually, and there are 16 oil platforms that operate in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore. Of the offshore operations, eight produce oil that goes directly into facilities in the county, while the other eight produce oil for facilities in neighboring Ventura County.

There have been 18 spills reported for the same three-year period, 2015 to 2017, with this year experiencing the highest volume of spills — 10 barrels of crude oil and 200 barrels of produced water, according to staff.

The 2015 Plains All-American Pipeline leak was not included in the data.

County energy specialist Errin Briggs said of all the spills since 2015, no waterways have been affected and the materials were quickly and successfully removed by the operator. Only one spill leaked outside a containment zone.

“As a general trend, spills are trending down,” he said.

Ken Hough, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, expressed dismay that that report didn’t analyze the threat to the county’s groundwater through onshore oil drilling.

“It’s not just a potential,” he said. “It’s already happening.”

Although the county has no system for testing whether groundwater is contaminated by oil operations, Briggs said he wasn’t aware of any contamination at the sites where operations exist or spills have occurred.

Briggs also told the supervisors that the Plains All-American Pipeline system, which ruptured and leaked thousands of gallons of crude oil onto Refugio and El Capitán state beaches, still remains out of service. The company submitted plans to reopen the damaged lines, but the application was deemed incomplete.

Plains has resubmitted plans and county staff is currently reviewing those documents, he said.

Briggs also told the supervisors there are plans to plug and abandon Platform Holly, with the structure to eventually be removed. The work will be assisted by the Ellwood Onshore Facility in western Goleta, which will then be decommissioned after the platform is gone.

There are also three proposed onshore oil projects, all in Cat Canyon north of Los Alamos, including a 296-well proposal by Aera Energy, a 233-well project by ERG Resources and a 231-well proposal by Petro Rock Energy.

The Board of Supervisors directed staff to return at least annually with an update on oil and gas operations, with the next meeting to be held in Santa Maria. The supervisors also asked that other violations, such as those imposed by state and federal agencies, be included in the report so the board has the clearest picture possible.

Noozhawk contributing writer April Charlton can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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