Santa Maria Energy oil well.
Lyz Hoffman

Talk of limiting greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources — primarily oil drilling operations — in Santa Barbara County erupted in November 2013 with the controversial approval of Santa Maria Energy’s 136 cyclic steam-injection wells, the largest project to hit the county in years. Since that green light and amid last year’s Measure P debate, county officials have been working on developing a formal emissions ceiling that, if surpassed, would necessitate that companies buy offsets until they fall under the ceiling.

That process took a significant step forward last week, with the county Planning Commission holding its first discussion on what ceiling to impose; this spring, the Board of Supervisors will consider whichever limit the commissioners choose. Also last week, an advisory group — composed of appointees with varied backgrounds — to the county’s Air Pollution Control District (APCD) deliberated over the district’s own proposed thresholds, which would apply to projects where the APCD takes the lead; the district’s Board of Directors will continue that talk in April.

County staff have encouraged the Planning Commission to consider a 10,000-metric-ton flat limit, which was used on Santa Maria Energy’s project. The limit — only applicable to new operations — would see that bigger projects reduced their pollution without requiring smaller projects with minimal emissions to have to purchase reduction credits.

For example, of the 418 polluters under the county’s purview, 347 release fewer than 1,000 metric tons per year; 12 emit more than 10,000 metric tons. (To put those figures in perspective, 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide would be equivalent to the pollution from 2,105 cars.)

The commission could also recommend basing the limit on a percentage-based reduction of a project’s total emissions. Under the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) passed in 2006, California must reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and requires that energy projects cut their emissions by at least 15.3 percent. Over at the APCD, that limit seems to be the strongest contender, where sources that emitted between 10,000 and 25,000 metric tons annually would be required to cut back by 15.3 percent. Projects above and beyond 25,000 metric tons a year would be subject to California’s cap-and-trade law.

In 2013, in approving Santa Maria Energy’s proposal, the Planning Commission levied a stricter 29 percent threshold on the 88,000-metric-ton project, which would have cut the pollution levels down to about 62,000 metric tons per year. But the Environmental Defense Center charged that 29 percent wasn’t enough and that the project could buy the offsets — about $500,000 worth a year — to bring the emissions down to 10,000 or spend $900,000 to make the number zero. The supervisors, after a contentious six-hour hearing, ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of the 10,000 mark, also used by many other jurisdictions across California, including San Luis Obispo County’s APCD and the air quality agency for nine Bay Area counties.

But the environmental community has urged the county to set its official standard at zero, an option also on the commission’s table. Sounding the alarm on climate change, all but one of the several speakers made that case at the recent Planning Commission meeting. “Climate change is here now. It’s real and it’s affecting us for real,” said Sierra Club member Robert Bernstein. “I get a zero threshold when it comes to dumping trash on the street.”

Further chiming in was Katie Davis, also of the Sierra Club and a member of the APCD’s advisory group. Davis pointed to the State Lands Commission, which has used the zero metric, and Santa Barbara County’s pending uptick in cyclic-steaming operations, a method that releases more emissions than traditional drilling does. Pacific Coast Energy Company has applied for 96 more wells, and ERG Operating Company has proposed 233 more.

“Santa Barbara County faces a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” Davis said. “This threshold is incredibly important.” Noting that operators have surfed the recently volatile oil market, Davis said the companies “can afford the pennies to mitigate” their emissions. Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center also lobbied for a limit of zero, likewise deferring to the State Lands Commission. “This is a scientific decision, not a political decision,” she said.

The lone representative of the area’s oil industry to speak before the commission, Ben Oakley — the environmental coordinator for ERG Operating Company and another member of the APCD’s advisory panel — pushed instead for the 15.3 percent line. “This is not an arbitrary number,” he said. “It is the target set forward by the state to achieve real greenhouse gas reductions and inhibit climate change.”


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