County Staff Berated at Supes Oil Hearing

Same Trouble, Different Complaints

AN OILY MESS: Assistant County CEO John Baker (pictured) delivered a report on the still-spilling, though improving, Greka energy company at this week's County Supervisors meeting.
Paul Wellman (file)

Tuesday was a tough day at the office for Santa Barbara County Planning and Development head John Baker. Delivering an update about onshore oil operators to the County Board of Supervisors-a meeting designed to keep the supes in the loop about oil spills, facility inspections, and ordinance updates that the supes themselves asked for earlier this year in the wake of Greka Energy’s oil spilling spree-the assistant county CEO drew harsh criticism from the board, specifically supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf. Visibly frustrated with the information Baker was providing and the speed at which his staff was working toward the board’s desired goal, Carbajal turned to Baker’s boss, CEO Mike Brown, and said “The answers I’ve gotten today were not satisfactory to me : It really feels like we have lost our sense of urgency on this.”

The hearing started innocently enough, with Baker presenting the supes with information about the number of oil spills, facility inspections, and types of infractions found since the last update on May 5. According to Baker, since that briefing, there have been 13 accidental releases of oil by onshore operators in the county, eight of which were at Greka facilities. (It should be noted, however, that Greka has the most facilities in the county.) Furthermore, Baker explained that inspections at 18 Greka facilities have unearthed 765 “deficiencies,” though only 40 were what he called “high-level priorities.” As for other operators in the county, Baker said that 29 facilities had 346 deficiencies, of which only four were deemed “high-level.” While the supes had no beef with Baker at this point, it was clear that some of them did not enjoy hearing about numbers that overwhelmingly point to Greka being the boogeyman of the oil scene.

“It is really too bad that we keep putting this off : This is the teeth we need [to make enforcement effective].” – Janet Wolf

It wasn’t until the discussion turned to the progress that staff has made toward crafting ordinances aimed at punishing repeat spillers and recouping facility response costs from operators that the frustrations began to emerge. Upon hearing that the response ordinance-which assesses operators $690 fees for every visit that clean-up crews have to make after one a year-was not yet ready for approval despite being asked for nearly six months ago, Wolf lamented, “It is really too bad that we keep putting this off : This is the teeth we need [to make enforcement effective].” In response, Baker promised that the ordinance would be ready for a vote by September.

Next up was the repeat offender ordinance that the supes hope will provide a means for ensuring that frequently spilling operators foot the bill for the clean-up and reclamation of drilling sites once operations stop. Noticing that the language in the presentation about the ordinance was word-for-word what it was two months ago and two months before that, Carbajal demanded an explanation. When Baker could offer little beyond a confusing description of potentially hefty insurance fees the county would potentially incur should it pursue such an ordinance, Carbajal unloaded. “I cannot believe that we have been at this for six months and we still don’t have an ordinance,” he said. “It’s outrageous.” Wolf expressed similar dismay, and 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno, though more sympathetic to the complexity of what staff has been asked to do, also deemed the information provided to be indicative of “horrendous progress.” For his part, Baker defended his staff, pointing out the progress they have made and the dozens of site inspections they have completed as evidence of making headway on the issues. After hearing this and additional reporting from Baker that a final board directive-developing a database that compiles and cross-references information from the various agencies that regulate onshore oil operators-was similarly behind schedule, Carbajal urged Baker to ask for more resources if that would help the cause.

The next board briefing about onshore oil operators, their spills, their facilities, and the ordinances that govern them is scheduled for September.

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