Santa Barbara decision makers now enjoy a significantly broader menu of choices when confronting the 88,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases Santa Maria Energy’s proposed new onshore oil development is expected to generate during peak production, thanks to an expanded environmental impact report just released last week. The new analysis was prepared after county planning commissioners expressed concern earlier this year that their options regarding greenhouse-gas mitigation was too restricted. At that point, county staff had proposed giving the 126-well project a thumbs up, assuming it could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 26 percent below 1990 levels. On the table now are options to reduce emissions by 50 percent and by 90 percent through the year 2050.

In deference to climate-change legislation, Santa Barbara officials have insisted on a threshold of 10,000 metric tons, but because that limit is not written into county rules or regulations, decision makers enjoy some latitude. “It really gets down to an issue of fairness,” said county energy planner Kevin Drude. “How much can we expect one applicant to shoulder the burden of dealing with our cumulative responsibility as a society for greenhouse gases?” he asked. According to the new analysis, all of the greenhouse-gas-reduction scenarios have been deemed feasible, though the more restrictive are considerably more expensive. All scenarios rely upon the existence of a statewide cap-and-trade system to achieve their objectives.

Attorney Nathan Alley with the Environmental Defense Center argued in favor of the 90 percent reduction target, insisting it’s consistent with past county practices and also with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive decree on how the state should respond to the threat of climate change. A 90 percent reduction, he pointed out, is the only option that would get the proposed oil and gas plant’s greenhouse gas emissions below the 10,000 metric tons threshold. Drude and other planners have noted that Santa Barbara County generates a relatively small amount of greenhouse gases compared to other counties, and that traffic ​— ​both in the county and statewide ​— ​is the biggest producer. Even so, insisted Alley, projects like Santa Maria Energy need to be mitigated to the maximum extent. “Greenhouse gases are a global problem,” he said. “We have to be able to say our relative contribution to California and the rest of the world is as small as possible.”

Santa Maria Energy is proposing to build 126 new onshore wells that will extract oil loosened from their deposits deep within diatomaceous earth by means of intense steam injection. The two steam generators, powered by gas, are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases the project would create. The County Planning Commission is scheduled to revisit the issue later in August, but no matter the result, it’s all but inevitable the matter will be decided by the county supervisors. Already supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf have jumped in, lodging conflict-of-interest charges against a Santa Maria Energy public relations contractor ​— ​Andrea Costa ​— ​who also happened to serve on the Air Pollution Control District. Although Costa, who also sits on the Lompoc City Council, insisted there was no conflict of interest, she announced last week that she’s leaving Santa Maria Energy to take a job elsewhere.


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