[An updated version of this story can be found here.]

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission on Wednesday approved the Santa Maria Energy Oil Drilling and Production Plan with a 3-2 vote. The vote gives the thumbs-up to a 29 percent greenhouse gas emissions threshold for the project, which will see the construction of 110 new oil wells on a property south of Orcutt.

Along with the new oil wells — there are already 26 pilot wells on the site — Santa Maria Energy will build two steam generators, a crude oil pipeline, and a water pipeline that will provide recycled wastewater from the Laguna County Sanitation District for the steam generators. The oil will be produced through a process called cyclic steam injection, which involves injecting steam in the wells to get the oil to flow.

The initial vote for the project was 3-2 against a proposed 16 percent emissions threshold, which commissioners Daniel Blough (5th District) and Larry Ferini (4th District) supported. The final vote, also 3-2, approved the 29 percent threshold, which 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney and 3rd District Commissioner Joan Hartmann voted against, saying it wasn’t high enough of a restriction on the greenhouse gases, which will be produced by the steam generators.

Under the 29 percent standard, the steam generators will emit 66,876 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, down from the 88,000 originally projected, Cooney said. What he wanted, Cooney said, was for total emissions to not exceed about 29,000 metric tons per year.

Nathan Alley, the attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, which has been arguing that the project reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible — the group says it would be feasible for the emissions to be zero — said after the ruling that the organization was “both surprised and disappointed with the Planning Commission’s actions.” Alley said he was still mulling over appealing the decision to the Board of Supervisors.

Santa Maria Energy responded to the decision in a statement: “We are pleased with the Planning Commission’s approval of our project and want to especially thank all of our supporters. The decision was well-deliberated and we hope that is fully considered before someone decides to appeal.”


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