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Santa Maria Energy Should Thank, Not Attack, Supervisors


Monday, December 16, 2013

On November 12, Santa Maria Energy won approval from the Board of Supervisors to extract oil from 136 wells in the Orcutt Hills. Yet, from their and others’ reactions, you’d think the project had been denied.

The oil company got its project. The number of oil wells was not reduced. The amount of oil they could extract was not changed. They weren’t even required to do no harm. They were, however, required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions further than they had wanted, which meant they would make less profit. They still stand to make many millions of dollars mining a nonrenewable local natural resource.

Apparently, the project approval made the company an attractive investment. According to a December 4 news release, Hyde Park Acquisition Corp. II announced that it plans to merge all assets with Santa Maria Energy Holdings LLC, the resultant parent company: “The board believes the oil resources owned by SME together with its track record as an operator engaged in the development and production of oil and natural gas in Northern Santa Barbara County provide Hyde Park shareholders with an investment opportunity with considerable upside potential.”

Yet, immediately after the project was approved, the oil company bought full-page ads in several local newspapers questioning the legality of the conditions of approval and attacking the three supervisors who voted to require a higher level of mitigation than the company wanted.

The company claimed fewer jobs would be created and fewer taxes paid to the county. It should explain why, given that the size and scope of the project was not reduced. The company said it would have less money to give to the community. That threat is appalling. Local companies that earn much less find ways to give substantial funds to the community.

The ad invited people to join the Coalition of Common Sense, which — according to subsequent news reports that quoted Santa Maria Energy staff — is charged with unseating those three supervisors.

These ads and articles were followed by a letter to the editor from Santa Maria Energy president David Pratt claiming that his company has not “embarked upon a campaign to unseat the 1st, 2nd and 3rd District supervisors.” So what’s the public to believe? Will the company try to unseat the supervisors? Or should we take the word of the Santa Maria Energy president that it won’t?

Regarding Santa Maria Energy questioning the legality of the Board of Supervisor’s conditions of approval, it’s important to note that the county’s staff report to the supervisors stated that the greenhouse-gas mitigation level approved by the board was “based on substantial evidence.” It was not only legal, but on par with mitigation standards required by projects in Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Francisco, San Mateo, and several other counties. In addition, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors recently voted 5-0 to apply the same standard to the Southern California Gas Storage Project in Goleta.

Responsible corporations should do no harm to the environment in their quest for profits. Santa Maria Energy should emit no greenhouse gases that are not mitigated. Yet it is still able to emit 27,000 unmitigated metric tons yearly. This includes the 10,000-ton threshold that was just approved and the 17,000 tons it is currently emitting in flared gas that will be used to produce high-pressure steam.

The company’s objection is based on mitigation costing more than “business as usual,” but just as every government and every individual should take responsibility for their actions, so should every company. This just makes sense.

Rather than attacking three supervisors who did their best to balance economic and environmental concerns, Santa Maria Energy should thank the supervisors for approving this project, thereby improving the company’s attractiveness to investors and allowing it to make millions of dollars from a nonrenewable local resource.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at ken@sbcan.org.

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