Economy, environment go hand-in-hand

Last week, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors upheld the appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the Santa Maria Energy project, setting tougher standards for greenhouse-gas emissions.

As one of the appellants, the reader might expect that I came home and popped open the champagne. I didn't. Instead, I've been giving thought to next steps and reflecting on all the heartfelt comments I heard from 110 concerned residents of our region.

About 70 of those who testified urged the board to approve the project without requiring any additional mitigation of the greenhouse-gas emissions beyond what staff, the company and the Planning Commission had recommended. They cited the need for jobs. Pipefitters, trench diggers, oil workers, school teachers, mayors of four cities and more all wanted to see the boost to the economy project approval would bring.

About 40 other people urged the board to either deny the project altogether due to environmental concerns, including potential damage to local water sources and impacts on climate change, or require the greenhouse-gas emissions be fully or substantially mitigated. The debate seemed to be the economy vs. the environment.

It is time for all of us to realize the economy and environment go hand-in-hand.

Environmentalists need to understand the impacts their advocacy can have on the economy. In turn, champions of job creation need to understand the impacts of industry on the environment.

Throughout history and around the world there are many examples of economies ruined by environmental damage. And this time the damage contributes to a global problem, not just local.

So, what next?

First, we need the county or Air Pollution Control District to develop a local carbon-offset program. One consequence of the county's requirement placed on the Santa Maria Energy project may be that the company will pay for trees to be planted or landfill methane to be captured in other parts of the country or world. Right now, it is cheaper and easier to buy carbon credits in other places than here.

It would be better if the company could buy the required credits through a local program that used local labor to retrofit public transit fleets to run on cleaner fuel, or plant trees to sequester the emissions generated by the project.

Supervisor Doreen Farr referenced a program run by the Community Action Commission that retrofits houses for low-income families so their energy use could be reduced. The latter is a program Santa Maria Energy has already contributed to and says it may not be able to continue to fund if it has to meet these more-stringent requirements.

Next, we need the county to establish an emissions threshold, so companies and advocates know what to expect. Then we won't have to go through this contentious process with each application for a new oil project or other commercial/industrial project.

Supervisor Peter Adam was quoted in the Times as saying he wasn't interested in a county threshold, because there is already one set of

rules - California's AB32, which Supervisor Adam said only requires a 16-percent reduction in carbon emissions from new projects.

In its approval of the Santa Maria Energy project last week, however, the Board of Supervisors already determined the reductions required by AB32 do not go far enough. Our neighboring regions to the north and south have determined the same and have established the more stringent emissions threshold of 10,000 metric tons, the same threshold the county is requiring of Santa Maria Energy. This would be a good starting point for discussions.

Looking Forward Editorial ran Nov. 22, 2013 in the Santa Maria Times. Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.