Conflict of Interest Charges Roil Air Pollution Board

Lompoc City Councilmember Ashley Costa Denies Allegations From County Supervisors

Lomcoc City Councilmember Ashley Costa (05/03/11)
Mark Brown/Santa Maria Times

Last year, Santa Barbara’s air quality violated one of California’s benchmark standards only five times. In 1991, the number was closer to 100. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the agency responsible for overseeing Santa Barbara’s air quality — the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) — has been rocked in recent weeks by conflict of interest allegations. County supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolfe, who serve on the APCD board, just learned that fellow Boardmember Ashley Costa — also a Lompoc City Councilmember — works for Santa Maria Energy, a North County oil company with a major project now pending before the County Planning Commission. They contend that Costa has been pushing a proposal that could enable Santa Maria Energy to pollute more. Costa, not surprisingly, denies the charge and insists no conflict of interest exists.

While the actual facts are anything but clear, tensions surrounding this controversy bubbled over at last week’s APCD meeting and, at least for the time being, deep-sixed the district’s proposed Clean Air Plan, which by law must be updated every three years. Normally such documents are ratified with little or no controversy. But lurking in the draft plan is language that would create a “growth allowance” of 500 tons a year of air pollution. “There’s no explanation of how this would be allocated,” complained Supervisor Carbajal. “We’ve given out allowances in the past, but never this much, and we’ve always known who was going to use them and what for. I’ve got a lot of questions but no answers.” Half of the county’s ozone pollution is generated by marine tankers heading through the channel.

Carbajal is suspicious that the 500-ton pollution credit will get used up by oil companies like Santa Maria Energy, which employs his board colleague Costa when she’s not representing the residents of Lompoc. (The APCD is a super-bureaucracy made up of all five county supervisors and elected representatives from each of the county’s seven cities.) And Carbajal is not alone. “When I heard she worked for Santa Maria Energy, that raised a red flag with me,” said Wolf.

Wolf, it turns out, heard Costa worked for the energy company from Carbajal, who found out by reading an article published on the new online news site, Mission and State. APCD director Dave Van Mullem said he didn’t know until Carbajal told him as well. While Van Mullen said he could not discuss potential conflicts of interest, Wolf and Carbajal expressed concern that Santa Maria Energy might need pollution credits in order to offset much of the air pollution the oil company will generate by pumping hot reclaimed water deep into the ground to separate the oil reserves from the diatomaceous earth in which it’s deposited.

They claim Costa’s support for the 500-ton allowance is tainted by this conflict, as was her vigorous support for a draft plan to create a new countywide repository of pollution offsets. Last month, when Wolf expressed concern that this draft plan had not been adequately vetted by enough stakeholders and sought to table the matter until a later date, Costa vigorously led the charge to keep it on track and ultimately prevailed by a 6-4 vote.

Carbajal asked a lot of vague questions about potential conflicts of interest at last week’s APCD meeting without ever specifying whom he was talking about. Costa, for her part, never said anything. But responding to questions via email, she emphatically denied any conflict existed. “I am confident I have not had a conflict of interest with any of the matters that I have voted on as an APCD board member,” she wrote. She said she thought Van Mullem knew she provided “contract services” to Santa Maria Energy “for a matter of months” and that she’d included such information in her financial disclosure statements.

Costa acknowledged that Santa Maria Energy will need pollution offsets to operate, but for greenhouse gases. The offsets that are included in the proposed “growth allowance” and itemized in the proposed county inventory are for ozone precursor pollutants, not greenhouse gases. “It appears the issues are being confused,” she stated. Lastly, she insisted that the study of possible county-generated pollution offsets was just that — a study — and nothing specific enough from which she or her company could materially benefit.

That this controversy could generate so much heat reflects the fact that the Planning Commission is scheduled to decide the fate of Santa Maria Energy’s proposal this August. And that body is almost perfectly split with two commissioners for, two against, and one somewhere in the middle. It remains to be seen whether the 500-ton annual pollution credit will remain unscathed. Last week, the APCD board found itself so conflicted and contorted over the issue that even people in the room had a hard time saying what the vote was.

Van Mullem said the cushion was necessary so that “essential public programs” are not prevented for lack of air pollution credits. He noted that UCSB, for example, is currently on the cusp of needing pollution offsets to continue growing. But right now, he said, no such offsets exist anywhere on the South Coast. “None. Nada. Zip. Zero,” he said.

The good news, however, remains that there’s considerably less ozone-causing pollution in the county’s air. Part of that’s because there were 3,000 fewer tanker trips through the channel a year as a result of the recession. As the economy improves, the number of such trips will increase. So too will the amount of pollution generated. Making matters worse, the international agency governing tanker conduct announced recently it would not be requiring the installation of new less-polluting technology on new tankers for another five years. For APCD members like Carbajal and Wolf, that’s not good news. And for them, it further calls into question the advisability of the district’s proposal to establish a 500-ton pollution allowance.


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