All Huff and No Puff?

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

his September, the County of Santa Barbara Planning Commission hopes to decide the fate of a final and contentious piece of the Environmental Impact Report currently holding up Santa Maria Energy’s proposed expansion into the 32-acre Careaga lease in the Orcutt oil field. The expansion could potentially yield up to 3,300 barrels a day and pump tons of emissions into the county’s air. How many tons, though, is a subject of a heated debate surrounding the EIR, the outcome of which is being closely watched by oil companies and environmentalists for what it says about how the county’s vast remaining oil reserves may be tapped.

Santa Maria Energy’s plan has been held up since April 24 in a contentious and complicated EIR that planning commissioner Michael Cooney says is “the most complicated, difficult-to-understand document I’ve yet seen produced by this county.”

“It’s incredible,” said Cooney during the April commission meeting. “I do think it’s going to take an effort for this commission to understand this document much less the public.” [Full disclosure: Cooney sits on Mission and State’s advisory board].

The issue is over what level of greenhouse emissions reductions the expansion will be held to. Greenhouse gas emissions can include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. Once upon a time a project like this might have gone through various stages of the approval process without much public scrutiny, but ever since AB 32, the so-called Global Warming Solutions Act, the days of big emissions projects being quietly approved by the county are over.

Former Gov. Schwarzenegger surprised both friends and foes in 2006 by signing into law AB 32, which mandates bringing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. It took years for the state’s Air Resources Board, charged with regulating pollution, to hash out what combination of regulation, mandatory caps and market mechanisms would get the job done, but the law finally went into effect in January 2012 and now the county planning commission and Environmental Impact Report must toe the line.

Moreover, Schwarzenegger signed S-3-05 in 2005, an executive order to bring emissions down to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. The planning commission must consider AB 32′s immediately mandated cuts as well as S-3-05, given the longterm nature of Santa Maria Energy’s proposed drilling.

At risk is Santa Maria Energy’s expansion into the Careaga oil lease behind the White Hills Vineyard off Highway 135 in Orcutt. This field is a modest but significant play in the fossil-fuel boom sweeping the nation—a boom that has been made possible by technologies that can extract once-hard-to-get oil. In this case, it’s heavy crude oil trapped in diatomaceous sedimentary rock. The oil must be steam-heated to 550 degrees to get the thick substance up and out of the ground.

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