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In the past few weeks, much has been written about the Board of Supervisors’ decision to approve the Santa Maria Energy Oil and Gas Project, and to allow it to emit at least 10,000 tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) annually, despite the objections of numerous organizations and individuals who either asked the Board to deny the Project or require complete mitigation (to zero) of its GHG emissions.  For many of those advocates, including the Environmental Defense Center, Community Environmental Council, Get Oil Out!, Los Padres Sierra Club, Santa Barbara County Action Network and Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, the Board’s action was at least an improvement over the decision of its Planning Commission, which would have allowed the Project to increase its emissions more than five-fold.  Others have complained that the Board “went too far,” and several points of now-contentious discussion have emerged.  On behalf of the above groups who appealed this Project to the Board, I would like to correct and/or clarify some misconceptions.

First, one commenter has repeatedly complained that the 10,000 ton GHG standard – the Board’s compromise position – is too onerous and “was pulled out of the air.”  In fact, the 10,000 ton GHG standard was derived by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 2009, and it has been subsequently endorsed by numerous jurisdictions throughout California, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the County of San Luis Obispo and the County of Ventura.  In 2011, Santa Barbara County indicated that it would use the 10,000 ton GHG standard until some other standard was formally adopted.  In June 2013, the Board voted 5-0 to apply that same standard to the La Goleta Gas Storage Project.  In other words, the 10,000 ton standard has been used consistently by multiple jurisdictions, over a broad geographic region, for more than three years.  When it applied that standard to this Project, the Board was simply maintaining its own status quo.

Second, there has been a debate over whether or not GHGs are “air pollutants.”  They most certainly are, and the U.S. Supreme Court said as much in its 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA: “Because greenhouse gases fit well within [the federal Clean Air] Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant,’ EPA has statutory authority to regulate emissions of such gases . . . .”

Third, some have claimed that the Board’s decision exceeds state mandates.  In fact, California does not have a statewide standard for discerning the significance of GHG emissions, nor is there a bright-line threshold which has been put forth by the legislature.  The standard endorsed by Project proponents is not law, and in fact it only applies to pre-2020 emissions.  The best guidance for this Project, which is expected to operate past 2050, is found in an Executive Order that endorses an approach which is very close to the 10,000 ton standard.

Fourth, there has been some discussion of the Project’s use of reclaimed wastewater.  With the proper treatment and ever-improving technologies, reclaimed wastewater can be used for irrigation and other freshwater needs.  When that water is instead used for steam injection/oil production, it becomes contaminated by hazardous substances and is sealed away deep underground, removing the water from the hydrologic cycle and rendering it useless forever.  Even though the Project is using “wastewater,” it is actually “wasting water.”

Finally, some project proponents complained that even the compromise GHG standard would kill the Project or depress job creation.  But the Project is proceeding, full-steam ahead, with no discernible reduction in scope or ambition, and those gloomy predictions appear to have been nothing more than a lot of hot air.

Moving forward, there are two ways to reduce some of the frictions impeding the conversation about industrial GHG emissions.  The County should go through a formal process under the California Environmental Quality Act to adopt a threshold of significance for GHGs that would apply equally to all future projects.  This would provide certainty and reduce risk for regulated entities, and it would prevent every project from becoming an ideological slug-fest.  In addition, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District should create a program which recognizes local or regional GHG offset credits; those credits can then be marketed and sold to projects within the County or region, facilitating required mitigation for local projects and capturing the market benefit for our local economy.  The Board discussed both of these concepts during its deliberations on the Santa Maria Energy Project, and I hope that the political willpower exists to see them through.  At the end of the debate, the risks and realities of climate change persist.  Whatever we can do to meet the challenge is a step in the right direction.

This op-ed was published in the December 8, 2013 issue of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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