Oil company should thank county supervisors

Santa Maria Energy won approval from the Board of Supervisors to extract oil from 136 wells in the Orcutt Hills. Yet, you'd think the project had been denied.

The company got its project. The number of wells was not reduced. The amount of oil they could extract was not changed. They weren't even required to do no harm. They were, however, required to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions further than they wanted, which meant they would make less profit. They still stand to make millions of dollars mining a non-renewable local natural resource. A denial, no doubt, would have cost them millions.

Apparently, the project approval made the company an attractive investment. According to a recent news release, Hyde Park Acquisition Corp. II announced plans to merge all assets with Santa Maria Energy Holdings LLC, the parent company. According to the release, "The board believes the oil resources owned by SME, together with its track record as an operator engaged in the development and production of oil and natural gas in Northern Santa Barbara County, provide Hyde Park shareholders with an investment opportunity with considerable upside potential."

Yet, after the project was approved, the oil company bought ads in local newspapers questioning the legality of the conditions of approval, and attacking the three supervisors who voted to require the higher level of mitigation.

They claimed fewer jobs would be created and fewer taxes paid to the county. They should explain why, given the size and scope of their project was not reduced. They said they would have less money to give to the community. That threat is appalling. Local companies that earn much less find ways to give substantial funds to the community.

The ad invited people to join the “Coalition of Common Sense,” which, according to subsequent reports that quoted Santa Maria Energy staff, is charged with unseating those three supervisors.

These ads and articles were followed by a letter to the editor from Santa Maria Energy President David Pratt claiming his company has not "embarked upon a campaign to unseat the 1st, 2nd and 3rd District supervisors."

So, what's the public to believe?

Regarding Santa Maria Energy questioning the legality of the board's conditions of approval, it's important to note that the county's staff report to the Board of Supervisors stated the greenhouse-gas mitigation level approved by the board was "based on substantial evidence." It was not only legal, but on par with mitigation standards required by projects in Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Francisco, San Mateo and several other counties. In addition, this board recently voted 5-0 to apply the same standard to the Southern California Gas Storage Project in Goleta.

Responsible corporations should do no harm to the environment in the quest for profits. Santa Maria Energy should emit no greenhouse gases that are not mitigated. Yet they are still able to emit 27,000 unmitigated metric tons yearly. This includes the 10,000-ton threshold that was just approved, and the 17,000 tons they are currently emitting in flared gas that will be used to produce high-pressure steam.

Their objection is based on mitigation costing more than business as usual, but just as every government and every individual should take responsibility for their actions, so should every company. This just makes sense.

Rather than attacking three supervisors who did their best to balance economic and environmental concerns, Santa Maria Energy should thank them for approving this project, thereby improving their attractiveness to investors, and allowing them to make millions of dollars from a non-renewable local resource.

Looking Forward Editorial ran Dec. 13, 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.