Santa Maria - North County

Controversy over plans to triple Santa Barbara County's oil production in Cat Canyon continues

Planning Commission weighs on ERG proposal

Controversy over plans to triple Santa Barbara County's oil production in Cat Canyon continues

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - A project offering to triple Santa Barbara County's oil production continues stirring debate. Environmentalists believe a proposal to add dozens of oil wells in Cat Canyon could trigger the next oil spill and contaminate the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, while supporters insist it would boost the local economy by adding jobs and tax revenue. 

On Wednesday, supporters and opponents of the West Cat Canyon Revitalization Project spoke before the Planning Commission during an 8-hour meeting in Santa Maria.  

ERG Resources' 40-year design initially proposed:

  • 233 new oil wells
  • 10 new well pads, 1 new equipment pad, 91 existing pads (9 expanded)

  • 4 new steam generators

  • Inner-field piping

  • 3-5 mile, 8-inch NGF pipeline

After an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) highlighted concerns over potential dangers to water supply, air quality, biology, cultural resources, traffic, among other things, the oil company was asked to scale back its plans. 

ERG's updated proposal now includes:

  • 187 new wells

  • No new well pads, 1 new equipment, 91 existing pads (9 expanded)

  • 4 new steam generators

  • Inner-field piping

  • 3-5 mile, 8-inch NGF pipeline


ERG CEO Alan White said the company's track record was testament of efforts towards responsible oil production. 

The Cat Canyon oil field has been in constant production for at least 100 years and there's no one single demonstrated instance of contamination of ground water that we're aware of," White explained. "The bottom line is that this is an infill project, which means it will occur within the currently developed 75 acres of active oilfield, representing only 0.1% of the 8,000 acres of ERG’s West Cat Canyon holdings."

White also pointed to modern techniques and recommendations by the EIR that would reduce the risk of oil spills.

We've agreed to add an additional string of casing through the fresh water aquifer that will be cemented in place as a layer of additional protection.”

But Central Coast environmentalists voiced dissatisfaction with these modifications as they rallied ahead of the Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday morning. 

If we don't have water, we don't survive. Water is life," Esperanza Salazar of Lideres Campesinas said. 

We could be on the brink of having the largest oil spill in California right around the corner," said Hazel Davalos of CAUSE.  

They're gonna go through our groundwater," Rebecca August of Safe Energy Now agreed. "They threaten our water supply. They're gonna use fresh water, they're gonna add hundreds of trucks to the road every day.”

"It's a very highly, carbon intense and dangerous oil project," staff attorney at the Environmental Defense Center, Alicia Roessler added. "This is high risk steam injection, acidifying oil drilling. This community doesn't want this.”

Roessler said more than 40 community organizations had signed a petition denouncing the Cat Canyon project. 

But supporters of more oil production showed up in numbers, too. 

We want oil!” Andy Caldwell, of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB), said.   

All the steam going in there, it's not gonna affect our water tables," Sonny Russel, a Los Alamos resident, said during public comment. "They've got casing around it, cement.”

Many said they were backing the Cat Canyon plans because it would also create more jobs. According to White, new operations would mean around 200 new employees. 

Legal experts at the Environmental Defense Center said those weren't acceptable reasons to move forward. 

They're trying to get everyone to focus on the economy, when in fact if we eradicate our groundwater supply here --which supports most of the North County community –there will be no future economy,” Roessler said. 

Her team also declared the EIR findings to be inadequate. EDC speakers said the report omitted information about the proposal's estimated carbon footprint, horizontal drilling, location and size of each well pad, composition of chemicals used for drilling, inventory of hazardous materials, an air quality analysis, existing water contamination on the site, its impact on rare species, and fire risks. 

Project supporters like Caldwell said "the biggest fire hazard is not having enough money to pay for fire departments," adding that more oil production would generate tax revenue that would contribute funding towards public safety agencies. 

If there wasn't a tremendous market for this oil, this project wouldn't be proposed," Caldwell said. 

Others explained it was simply about shopping local.

Our reliance on foreign resources for petroleum has increased,” Willy Rivera of the California Independent Petroleum Association said. 

The EIR also analyzed noise and traffic impacts. The full report can be found here

After hearing from public comment speakers for nearly seven hours, the Planning Commission announced discussions would continue at the next hearing on March 27. 

ERG Resources is one of three oil companies proposing to increase oil production in Santa Barbara County. 

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