Last week, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission approved an oil development and pipeline project, along with an environmental impact report allowing for a 29 percent carbon emissions threshold for Santa Maria Energy.

The project approval process for the new plans — which included developing oil production wells, pipelines and equipment on property that is south of Orcutt — first began in 2009. But after much debate, Santa Maria Energy was given the go-ahead for the installation of 136 oil wells — 26 of which exist as part of an earlier project — using an enhanced oil recovery technique called cyclic steaming, so as to extract oil from the Sisquoc diatomite formation. In addition, a related but independent project authorizes an eight-mile-long and 16-inch wide underground pipeline for recycled water to the Laguna County Sanitation District.

After a lengthy public hearing, filled with emotional appeals from supporters and opponents alike, the decision came down to a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Joan Hartmann and C. Michael Cooney opposed to the project and in favor of stricter environmental standards.

However, Hartmann said both sides were very active in reaching out and educating the community, making for an informed decision.

“I was surprised how many people came from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara to testify. In addition, Santa Maria Energy has been very active and effective in grass roots organizing as a corporation,” Hartmann said. “The more people that care and register their concerns — the better. It was a long hearing, we learned and listened and did the best we could.”

At the hearing, community members debated whether or not there should be approval for more drilling on property in the Orcutt Hills and the discussion largely focused on the environmental impacts of the plan, according to Cooney. He said the amount of “greenhouse gas generated at full-operation,” as well as whether or not such gases would be environmentally harmful, was a major topic of discussion.

The disputes ranged from the stance that California is not a big greenhouse gas contributor — in relation to other states and nations worldwide — to another opposing stance that contended that the oil extracted from the new development is “the worst kind of oil to be pumping out of the ground,” a view Cooney said was held by a coalition of environmental groups whose also said there should be a greater search for “alternative fuels.”

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires the California Air Resources Board to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels from 1990 by the year 2020, regardless of how the Santa Maria Energy project may exceed these greenhouse gas emission standards. Cooney said that while the county was hoping for more stringent standards, they ended up settling with a 29 percent carbon emissions threshold, which he said was the best possible solution under current law, in spite of how much it upset several environmental groups.

“The state makes clear that it must reduce by at least 16 percent below the ‘business as usual’ approach in order to bring us back to 1990 levels by 2020,” Cooney said. “Earlier, the planning commission had signaled it was looking for something greater than 29 percent — more like 50 or 90 percent. The environmental groups were holding out for zero emissions, but were looking to compromise for 90 or 95 percent, holding this application to the 10,000 metric tons per year limit.”

This is the first stationary project in Santa Barbara County to exceed the yearly limit of 10,000 metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere and Hartmann said the decision sets a precedent for future oil projects.

“The approval means that Santa Maria Energy can emit 67 thousand metric tons of greenhouse gas equivalent, initially, for the first period until the state system goes into effect. Then the state system will start rationing their emissions down,” Hartmann said.

Hartmann said that with the state now providing the bulk of environmental regulations, the local community will no longer be able to depend on local law for environmental protection and regulation.

“We are now relying on the state for regulations,” Hartmann said. “Until we get other guidance from the state, this sets a low-default standard for oil, gas and other operations.”

When there is an inconsistency in environmental regulation standards at the state and federal levels, companies can take their business and profits elsewhere to avoid environmental standards, Hartmann said, thus making for poor regulation of carbon emissions at the local level.

Establishing stricter regulation standards would have forced Santa Maria Energy to buy offset credit, which many opposed because there was fear of a loss of local business profits, Hartmann said, while noting that inconsistency in regulation standards can also create later business dilemmas.

“Inconsistency creates forum shopping, where industries threaten to go elsewhere, having to possibly buy offsets from other states that aren’t regulating,” Hartmann said. “We need uniformity across the board.”

The project forced county planners to make a decision that made a trade-off between positive short-term economic benefits and long-term environmental harm, and Hartmann said that even while the oil production will be profitable, such revenue will most likely “go to their share holders.”

During the hearing, Cooney said, Santa Maria Energy yielded power by highlighting the economic benefits to the county from their oil production profits, undermining environmental restrictions.

“Santa Maria Energy’s chief executive officer showed up at the end of the hearing with a threat, saying that, ‘If you make us pay more to offset our greenhouse gas emissions by buying offsets, that’s money out of the pockets of people of Santa Barbara and the county, and will end up costing you more in the long run,’” Cooney said.

According to Hartmann, in approving this project, the county opted for an infusion of money into their economy while compromising environmental protection standards.

“This approval follows the short-term business-as-usual approach — making small changes versus thinking about the long-term and trying to make a slightly bigger change,” Hartmann said. “If we do not address this now, we’re going to have to make larger, more drastic changes suddenly in the future.”

Nathan Alley, attorney for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), said he could not believe the approval and that the EDC is currently seeking to reverse this decision.

“The Environmental Defense Center and its clients are surprised and disappointed by this decision and are strongly considering filing an appeal with the board of supervisors,” Alley said.