At the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission hearing in Santa Maria on March 13, the statistics presented regarding “responsible domestic energy” were inaccurate. Mistakes were made with figures for oil operations both at Cat Canyon and elsewhere in the world. At the hearing, we were told that extracting oil domestically is preferable to importing oil specifically in terms of carbon intensity. This claim, however, is false.
Our fact-checking also shows that in the most recent data available, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) gives Cat Canyon a carbon intensity, or greenhouse-gas emissions, of 7.83 g/MJ (grams per megajoule). This is almost double what we heard at the hearing, where the out-of-date figure of 4.08 g/MJ was presented.
The state’s official figures for the proposed steam injection techniques at Cat Canyon are much worse than those presented last week. It would be irresponsible for the county to allow the project to proceed.
Challenging the misuse of statistics is crucial – particularly when corporations mislead the public. Historian Naomi Oreskes has meticulously documented how fossil fuel companies deliberately misused statistics to sow confusion and mislead the public on climate change, spreading doubt and weakening support for environmental policies. The same occurred in the tobacco and chemicals industries.
What follows is a correction using the same official data sources cited at the hearing; it requires a bit of explanation: Carbon intensity figures are used globally to measure greenhouse gas emissions associated with the life cycle of different energy sources. They are measured in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule (g/MJ) of energy produced. Higher figures are worse than lower ones, meaning more emissions are created and released into the atmosphere. Effects on climate change, people, and the environment are equivalently negative.
In late 2012, the two primary operators at Cat Canyon (ERG and Vaquero Energy) began steam injection. This explains the dramatic increase in the field’s carbon intensity since then. Were Cat Canyon’s carbon intensity recalculated today, a CARB official anticipated the figure would probably get closer to 9 or 10 g/MJ as steam injection has continued to increase. For reference, other California oilfields using steam injection have very high carbon intensity values: for example, San Ardo in Monterey County (26.42 g/MJ) and Midway-Sunset in Kern County (29.33 g/MJ).
Among the equipment ERG uses currently are two steam generators; ERG hopes to increase this to seven, pending the Planning Commission’s decision. These natural gas-powered generators, along with many trucks and the current and projected operations at Cat Canyon, add to the carbon intensity of the oil extraction there.
Furthermore, the figures presented on other countries at the March 13 hearing were inaccurate and out-of-date. For example, Nigeria is not a significant source of California oil imports, and its average carbon intensity is 11.86 g/MJ (not the figure of 33.44 that was presented), based on extraction method and type of crude and including transportation to California. The comparisons made between Cat Canyon and other countries were massively misleading.
According to the California Energy Commission, the state’s crude oil imports come mostly from Saudi Arabia, 37 percent; Ecuador, 14 percent; and Colombia, 13 percent (2018 data, accessed 17 March 2019 at https://www.energy.ca.gov/almanac/petroleum_data/statistics/2018_foreign_crude_sources.html. The latest CARB carbon intensity figures for these countries are as follows (with the misleading figures presented at the hearing in parentheses): Saudi Arabia, 8.82 (not 9.05); Ecuador, 9.19 (not 10.23); Colombia, 10.97 (not 11.67).
All the official figures for these countries are actually lower than those that were presented at the hearing. These figures put Cat Canyon’s known operations in the same ball park as the state’s biggest foreign oil provider. Even the estimate for current oil extraction activities — 9 g/MJ — would rank Cat Canyon’s oil as more carbon intensive, or greenhouse gas productive, than imports from Saudi Arabia. If approved, ERG’s project would likely dramatically increase the field’s carbon intensity still further.
That the argument for domestic oil extraction using steam injection at Cat Canyon is based partly on erroneous figures is sufficient reason for all the proposed projects to be reassessed and, for the sake of the environment, canceled. The bigger picture, though, concerns more than comparative carbon intensity figures.
The urgency of climate change means we must rapidly and dramatically reduce all our consumption of oil, wherever in the world it comes from.
The tactic of misusing statistics to mislead and confuse the public is well-used by corporations. Worse is the crime of omission. This past December, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations joined states like New York and cities like San Francisco in suing Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, and other oil companies for concealing from the public scientific evidence they had of climate change.
Here we caution against such tactics ever being used again, even as we wait for these lawsuits to work through the courts. It is all too easy to make genuine mistakes when working with statistics. By pointing out the above errors, we hope to have clarified information pertaining to carbon intensity and Cat Canyon for members of the public and for decision-makers. We encourage all interested parties — particularly those swayed by ERG’s claim to be producing “responsible” domestic oil — to consider the data produced by state agencies charged with helping to protect us and the environment.
Those who cite statistics, particularly in public hearings, are responsible for ensuring they are presenting the most accurate, recent, and reliable information available. This responsibility was not fulfilled last week in Santa Maria. The Planning Commission and public audiences were seriously misled. To ward off the worst impacts of climate change necessitates building no new oil infrastructure, particularly carbon-intensive projects. Those proposed at Cat Canyon are worse in that regard than has been claimed. The county must act responsibly and therefore reject these projects.
The official figures for Cat Canyon are publicly available via the following links (accessed March 17, 2019):
2010 data (2015 LCFS amendments): 4.00 g/MJ (see Table 10 in https://www.arb.ca.gov/regact/2015/lcfs2015/lcfsfinalregorder.pdf)
2012 data (2015 LCFS amendments): 4.08 g/MJ (see Table 8 in https://www.arb.ca.gov/regact/2015/lcfs2015/lcfsfinalregorder.pdf)
2015 data (most recent 2018 LCFS amendments): 7.83 g/MJ (see Table 9 in https://www.arb.ca.gov/regact/2018/lcfs18/frolcfs.pdf)
Tristan Partridge is a research fellow at UCSB’s Institute for Social Behavior and Economic Research; Javiera Barandiaran is an assistant professor with UCSB’s Global Studies Department.