Energy: Can we find common ground?

          The Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara recently hosted the California Energy Summit in Buellton. Environmental advocates rubbed shoulders with oil producers.

          One panel focused on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and efficiencies that reduce the use of fossil fuels. Some speakers and members of the audience argued against subsidizing development of alternative fuels, instead favoring increased production of fossil fuels.

          Many of us used to think we needed to wean ourselves from fossil fuels because our supply would last only a few decades. As we learned at the Buellton conference, the supply is greater than ever, because of relatively new enhanced-extraction techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing and cyclic steaming. A lot of it is here in the United States, especially in the Monterey shale of the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley.

          Now, we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels because most scientists agree we are faced with an unprecedented climate-change problem, exacerbated by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

          Individuals, governments and corporations should to do all they can to reduce these emissions.

          The United States has a history of subsidizing energy development — including coal, oil, gas and nuclear — when these energy sources were new, and even now that they are mature. Early federal investments have been crucial to developing new energy sources, and have been key to economic expansion.

          It is time to increasingly subsidize development of renewable energy sources. The transition to renewables, however, cannot happen overnight. In the meantime, we need to ensure that our continued production of oil and gas is done in a manner that minimizes greenhouse-gas emissions.

          In a local example of this effort, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission has directed staff to analyze a stricter greenhouse-gas emissions standard for Santa Maria Energy’s proposal to drill 110 new oil wells to supplement its 26-well pilot project. We applaud the commission for taking a long and careful look at the complex issues surrounding this project.

          At commission hearings, many members of the community spoke in support of the project, citing its economic benefits, including well-paying jobs, increased property taxes, and reduced reliance on foreign oil. Others testified these obvious benefits should be accompanied by minimized environmental impacts.

          In its peak-production year, the project will generate about 88,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, mostly from generators used to create the steam to be injected into the wells. This may be small in the context of the planet, but it is huge for our small county, and represents what is within the control of our county leaders. It is also a precedent-setting action that will have a huge impact on how oil is developed here in the future.

          The county planning staff made the case for Santa Maria Energy to mitigate or offset 29 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions. SB CAN and other environmental advocates urged the commission to require a 90-100 percent reduction and to direct staff to recirculate the environmental impact report with that requirement and attendant technical analysis. 

          The commission opted for a middle ground and directed that a 50-percent reduction be analyzed and presented in a recirculated environmental impact report.

          Although that falls short of the reductions sought by environmental advocates, it is an important step in the right direction.

          In the case of the Santa Maria Energy project, we advocate that a precedent-setting local oil-drilling project be required to minimize impacts to our communities to the fullest extent possible.

Published in the Santa Maria Times May 10, 2013. Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs in the Santa Maria Times every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.