Hundreds of new oil wells could soon triple Santa Barbara County production

Why Santa Barbara County oil production could triple

An oil boom is coming to Cat Canyon in Santa Barbara County that could triple the area's oil production.
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An oil boom is coming to Cat Canyon in Santa Barbara County that could triple the area's oil production.

Environmental groups and local residents are sounding alarms that proposed drilling projects would triple onshore oil production in Santa Barbara County — to which the oil industry says, “What’s wrong with that?”

Three companies propose to add hundreds of new wells and associated pipelines to extract thick crude using thermally enhanced recovery — an energy-intensive process to recover heavy oils that can’t flow unless they are heated — and then truck the oil on rural roads and highways.

The projects would bring a new pulse of activity — along with tax revenue and risk of spills — to Cat Canyon Oil Field, a historic site of oil production up the road from Santa Maria into the rolling oak-covered Solomon Hills.

Oil men have pumped from that land 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean since the late 1800s, and production has waxed and waned over the years in response to market forces and developments in extraction technology.

Abandoned well pads and rigs now dot the landscape that sits over the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, which nearby farms, wineries and communities rely on for drinking and irrigation water.

Here’s what you need to know about the projects:

Hundreds of new oil wells are proposed in Santa Barbara County’s Cat Canyon. Courtesy photo

New oil wells at West Cat Canyon

It’s up to Santa Barbara County to consider permitting the projects, and the county Planning Commission will soon vote on the proposal that is furthest along in the process: ERG Operating Company’s West Cat Canyon Revitalization Plan.

Planning commissioners on March 13 heard from supporters of the ERG project that they say would bolster domestic supply and bring a steady flow of product to the Phillips 66 refinery near Nipomo. That could reduce California’s dependence on imported oil, much of which comes from Saudi Arabia and Ecuador.

Commissioners also heard from those who oppose the project, including nearby residents concerned about a substantial increase in oil tanker traffic and regional environmentalists aware of previously abandoned hazardous waste and oil spills and leaks in Cat Canyon that contaminated the soil, local waterways and habitat for rare plants and animals.

cat canyon protestor.jpeg
Protesters gathered before a Santa Barbara County Planning Commission meeting calling on officials to reject new oil wells in Cat Canyon. Courtesy photo

ERG, a subsidy of Houston-based CTS Properties, proposed 233 new oil and gas wells, 10 new pads and associated roads and pipelines in 2014, when the average price per barrel was more than $100. Five years later, it’s around $56.

County staff recommend approving a downsized project with 187 oil wells on existing pads. Fewer wells, staff says, would reduce noise pollution and the potential for serious oil spill impacts to surface and groundwater resources.

Impacts from an oil spill “would still be significant and unavoidable,” according to the environmental review.

All together, the West Cat Canyon Oil Field project would increase truck trips in Cat Canyon from 51 trucks a day to 207 one-way truck trips a day, according to the environmental review.

Domestic versus foreign oil

Other projects proposed in the area include Aera East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Project and a proposal by PetroRock to reactivate oil production in the north center portion of Cat Canyon Oil Field.

If every well proposed was approved, it would triple Santa Barbara County’s onshore oil production compared to 2015 levels, which averaged 7,470 barrels per day, according to a county energy report.

“So what?” said Bob Poole, with Western State Petroleum Association, who added that California uses 2 million barrels of oil a day and imports 1 million.

Approving the projects “means we’re going to import less from countries that don’t have (the California Environmental Quality Act). Every barrel we don’t produce in Santa Barbara County is going to get produced overseas. You want to have it produced in the most environmentally sensitive way, because we’re going to use it anyway.”

Not necessarily, said Katie Davis with Sierra Club Santa Barbara Group.

“It’s better to reduce oil use than to produce more,” Davis said in response to Poole’s comments. “We do have a plan to reduce oil use — and it is down. The high point of use was 2006, and our GDP and population have grown since then.”

She questioned the suggestion that oil extraction from Cat Canyon is “environmentally sensitive,” saying that steam injection “is the most energy intensive form of oil production” and that “our regulators are not doing their jobs.”

All of the Cat Canyon projects propose to use thermally enhanced extraction methods, which is more resource-intensive than traditional extraction methods.

In that process, thick oil is heated using steam made by heating brackish water from deep underground pools with natural gas-powered generators. The natural gas can come from on-site, but is also piped in.

‘We’d be moving backward’ on climate change

There’s also the matter of greenhouse gasses.

The projects are seen by many as a massive step backward for a climate-conscious county in a state that’s poised to fight the Trump administration over new leases for rigs off the shores of the same county.

While California is “leading the charge in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Santa Barbara County’s emissions as of 2017 increased by 14 percent from 2007 levels, according to the Environmental Defense Center.

ERG’s project alone would emit approximately 251,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, an environmental review found. That’s the equivalent of the emissions produced by driving 613,692,000 miles in an average car, or of burning 274,400,000 pounds of coal, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s also 251 times the amount of emissions that Santa Barbara County allows for a project.

That means ERG would be required to mitigate the emissions by, for example, buying carbon offset credits. That purchase, however, would not prevent the carbon dioxide emissions from being released. Rather, their fees could pay for something anywhere in California or in other states, like a greenway along a highway or the planting of trees that theoretically sequester the amount of greenhouse gasses ERG released.

Critics include State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who called the project a “wrong-headed approach” and noted that the county has already experienced the dramatic impacts of climate change with the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows.

If the project is approved, “we’d be moving backwards,” Jackson said in a phone interview with The Tribune. “What we should be doing is investing time, energy and money in developing alternative sources of energy. This is just a backwards effort and the proposal is fraught with problems from water quality environmental concerns. It’s completely misplaced.”

Jackson said she hopes Santa Barbara County planning commissioners and county supervisors “will be sensitive to and committed to the will of the people and the needs of the community. I’m hoping and expecting they will respond appropriately.”

The Planning Commission will continue discussions about ERG’s project on March 27.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: