Climate Group 350 Santa Barbara delivered over 2,700 petitions opposing the Santa Maria Energy project to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission at their hearing last month. Three times the number of written comments opposed the project as supported it. However, despite this, Planning Commissioners narrowly approved the project. Local environmental organizations have appealed the decision to the County Board of Supervisors, who will make a final decision at a hearing in Santa Maria on November 12.
Santa Maria Energy intends to drill 136 oil wells in the Orcutt field just south of Santa Maria using 300,000 gallons of water per day and generating 88,000 tons of greenhouse gases — the equivalent of adding over 17,000+ cars to county roads. (This is just from the drilling operations. Then the raw sludge gets shipped to refineries elsewhere, then sold on a world market, before being burned, emitting even more.) The project would be among the largest greenhouse gas polluters in the county.
The majority of people signing the petition opposing the project are local, though people outside the county and even outside the state also signed it, recognizing that if we are to head off devastating global warming, California needs to lead the way in transitioning to renewable energy and leave the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive oil in the ground.
The project uses cyclic steam extraction (CSS), a controversial technique in which steam is used to heat thick, heavy oil up to 500 degrees in order to extract it. This energy-intensive technique is also being used to extract the controversial Canadian tar sands oil. In Canada, the federal and provincial environmental departments and the Alberta Energy Regulator have all recently launched investigations after massive oil leaks contaminated water and killed wildlife in a field using CSS in the Cold Lake area. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil have spilled over 100 acres, and the leaks there have been ongoing for six months or more.
When questioned by a planning commissioner about this CSS spill in Canada, a Santa Maria Energy spokesperson claimed that the Canadian spill wasn’t relevant because it was “shallower.” This is false. According to the respective company websites, the Cold Lake reserves are 1,300 feet belowground, and the Orcutt reserves are 800-1,200 feet belowground. Oil seeps are common everywhere this technique is used, including here in California. There have been 80 seeps in a field operated by Pacific Coast Energy next to where Santa Maria Energy plans to drill. In Kern County, following a death in which an oilfield worker fell into a sinkhole filled with steam and boiling hot fluids, The Bakersfield Californian reported, “DOGGR has clamped down on injection work mainly because of what it considers the threat to underground sources of potential future drinking water. It has also cited a need to suppress seeping, or ‘surface expressions,’ a phenomenon that can occur naturally or as a result of high-pressure underground steam injection. Midway-Sunset and other oil fields in Kern County have repeatedly experienced seepage and even violent volcanoes in which oil, water and rocks can shoot 50 to 60 yards through the air.” [DOGGR is the state conservation department’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.]
Santa Maria Energy has been running a well-funded PR campaign claiming its project is safe, even going so far as to create its own petition supporting the project. The company has wanted to create the appearance of a “grassroots” community-led campaign in support of the project; however, it seems the main campaigner turns out to be the wife of the Santa Maria Energy president.
Some planning commissioners were convinced of this marketing campaign disguised as “grassroots support,” but North County residents should know that CSS projects were promoted as a “safe and environmentally friendly” technique in Canada as well. Now there has been five months of seepage and counting.
The 350 Santa Barbara petition can be found on the 350sb.org website. Local residents signing it are concerned about spills, local air and water pollution, the high level of greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts on their property values and health.
“Please stop this operation. The risk of damaging our water supply is too great,” wrote Greg Petro of Orcutt, along with his signature on the petition.
“I chose this county because of its stellar environmental record. Be the leader in the nation in alternative energy development. Oil is a losing strategy, we are better than this!” wrote Cynthia OByrne of Lompoc, another signer.