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Can Solar Grease the Wheel on Oil?

Oil Company Proposes Powering Small Part of Cat Canyon Operation with Green Energy

Lauren Coiro of Brighten Solar holds a sign during a March County Planning Commission hearing on the ERG Cat Canyon oil fields. Now, the company that bought ERG is proposing to power some of its operation with solar, which critics contend is just an attempt at greenwashing. | Credit: Len Wood, Staff

Nonrenewable energy resources, like oil and coal, come from below ground, while renewables like solar and wind power come from above ground. Michael Chiacos of the Community Environmental Council calls the former “resources from hell” and the latter “resources from heaven.” Deciding whether or not Cat Canyon’s oil should be recovered currently has Santa Barbara County in limbo.

A central issue in the debate over Cat Canyon has become how exactly its “mature” oil would be extracted. With oil, unlike fine wines and cheeses, “mature” does not equate to finer quality. It requires that oil operators use steam injection to make the heavy crude oil viscous enough to be sucked up from below. To generate this steam, companies typically heat up water with natural gas, which is what puts Cat Canyon oil field in the top 10 percent of carbon-intensive oil operations in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The upstream emissions that steam injection creates have garnered serious criticism from environmentalists. In response, oil companies, including TerraCore (who recently bought up ERG), have proposed decreasing some of those upstream emissions by harnessing the sun’s energy to help power facility operations. 

TerraCore’s COO Mark DePuy said that using integrated solar power at their facility would provide the foundation for TerraCore to “become an energy company of the future as we transition away from fossil fuels” at a recent Planning Commission meeting. Could continued fossil fuel extraction really pave the way toward their divestment?

The amount of solar energy necessary to power an oil facility is about 3 megawatts, the same amount needed to keep 2,000 Santa Barbara County homes running, said Nathan Eady, who represents TerraCore. If TerraCore were to use solar energy to generate steam for the injection process, that would require about 1,000 acres of solar panels (about 125 MW), but per the final EIR, the company will not be pursuing that option. Installing photovoltaic panels would increase the demand for such technology, which in turn could drive down the price of producing the sun-sucking tiles, perhaps making them more accessible to consumers and communities.

So why not make the whole project solar right now? 

The simple answer is that you currently can’t. About five years ago, Santa Barbara County adopted a code that limited utility-scale solar facilities to Cuyama Valley. On top of that are about 15 other regulatory, infrastructural, political, and financial barriers, which are laid out in a Strategic Energy Plan that was commissioned by the County Board of Supervisors and released in May. Until someone proposes a new ordinance that would expand solar development to the Cat Canyon area, we won’t see a commercial solar energy plant there anytime soon. 

In the meantime, integrating solar power is the biggest step oil companies can make to reduce their carbon footprint, Eady says. Yet opposition remains from both environmental academics and activists. 

Efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions are always better than none, but they can also act as a sort of greenwashing of the fossil fuel industry, says UC Santa Barbara’s Dr. Ranjit Deshmukh, a PhD in Energy and Resources. These kinds of projects, he says, “will lead to more licenses for oil companies, which in turn will create more subsidization of the industry.” 

Whether or not a Cat Canyon extraction facility chooses to use solar power to generate some of its energy needs, it would still be using steam injection, which is known to create adverse impacts on disadvantaged communities, according to environmental leaders and social justice activists alike. Leah Stokes, a professor in UCSB’s Political Science department, spoke of the threat on air and water quality that steam injection would create for communities near the oil field, who already lack social capital due to their largely Hispanic and lower income demographic.   

Before a decision is made between pursuing full-on renewable or going the oil route, the county will remain in limbo. But in the interim, there are still steps that can be made to keep emissions low or even obsolete, at least on the personal level. Michael Chiacos says that both renters and homeowners can transition to solar power by switching to SoCal Edison’s “Green Rate 100%” option. With an electric vehicle to boot, Santa Barbarans would not only be able to greatly reduce their carbon footprint, but also save money. “Chiacos said that $6,000 invested in solar panels could power an electric vehicle for 25 years, whereas a gas-powered vehicle owner would spend about $50,000 for gas over 25 years at current prices. The owner driving on sunshine would also not contribute to air or climate pollution.”

If you take a look at what climate activist Greta Thunberg is doing, switching to solar and buying a used Prius don’t seem all that difficult in comparison. 

Clarification: To this story was added the fact that none of TerraCore’s proposed 3 MW of solar energy would be used to generate steam for the oil-extraction process.

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