Santa Maria Energy (SME) is proposing to greatly expand an “enhanced recovery” heavy crude oil project in the North County. The County Planning Commission has voted 3-2 to allow it. This decision is being appealed, and the full Board of Supervisors is set to decide the issue at its next meeting November 12 in Santa Maria. Their decision will have national implications.
Manmade climate change due to the burning of fossil fuel reserves has scientific consensus. If we want to avoid the sea level climbing to the steps of the Lobero Theatre in the next century, the desertification of the local climate, etc., we need to look seriously at this proposed opportunity to continue (and increase) the production of CO₂ in the county. “Enhanced recovery” of fossil fuels is a much more extreme producer of CO₂ then the oil production we currently have.
SME proposes to inject superheated steam into the heavy crude deposit in the hills south of Orcutt. The steam will heat the oil, lowering its viscosity, allowing it to flow and be pumped to the surface. The steam will be produced from water heated with fossil fuels producing tens of thousands of tons of CO₂ per year before the recovered oil is even burned, itself producing even more CO₂. The heated and thinned underground crude oil will then will no longer be constrained by the existing geology it is trapped in. It has the real possibility to flow underground with potential to migrate through existing rock fractures and/or old abandoned well boreholes to produce “seeps and surface expression of oil” according to the County Staff Report on the project.
“Enhanced recovery” of fossil fuels is the new frontier of fossil fuel production since the production from easily recoverable deposits is decreasing. The Wall Street Journal has mentioned the SME project; the fossil fuel energy forces are closely monitoring this decision as a bellwether for continued “business as usual” for the oil industry. There are many more such projects waiting in the wings to be proposed in Santa Barbara; the approval of this first project will set a dangerous precedent for the county touted as the birthplace of the environmental movement.
Though it is impossible to prevent the possibility of “seeps and surface expression of oil” from the SME project (check out the disastrous and ongoing uncontrolled crude oil leaks using similar enhanced recovery techniques at Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada), the 87,000+ yearly tons of CO₂ production from the project must be mitigated. The County of Santa Barbara is committed to lowering its CO₂ emissions, and the supervisors would be negligent in their duties as representatives of the public if they did not condition approval of this project on a 100 percent offset of the climate change pollutants this project would produce. Anything less would be a dishonor to the environment.
If we are serious about implementing the eventual elimination of the production of climate-change gasses, we need to start by ending the development of new sources of fossil fuels, while increasing the production of renewable energy resources. A “no” vote on the SME project will be a logical step in the direction of a sane energy policy.