A crowd estimated at nearly 300 people gathered Thursday night to comment on the adequacy of the draft environmental impact report for Aera Energy’s proposed East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Project.

The crowd packed the Supervisors Hearing Room, spilled out to fill the lobby and trailed out the front doors of the Joseph Centeno Betteravia Government Administration Building in Santa Maria.

Prior to the meeting, a group of people opposed to the project protested outside the entrance.

Almost four dozen people carried anti-oil signs reading “An oil well is a death knell” or with images like a red circle and slash over the word “oil,” while others wore clothing with phrases like “Californians against fracking” printed on them. The protest group grew to about 45 people.

At least 50 people wore orange or yellow safety vests and hard hats, representing members of the trades who would be employed at the site and expressing their support.

But except for a few cat calls and snapping fingers in lieu of applause, the crowd was orderly and respectful of those with opposing opinions.

The hearing was to provide public feedback to the county on the draft EIR for Aera’s plan to re-establish oil production in an existing oil field using a steam injection process, drilling up to 296 wells on approximately 72 new and restored well pads and building and restoring more than nine miles of roads.

Seventy-five people signed up to speak, but a number either were not available or passed on their opportunity to offer their opinions to members of the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department staff.

Some praised the thoroughness and detail of the draft EIR, while others found certain sections lacking and asked that they be revisited to generate more detail about the impacts as well as the mitigation measures.

Several people said the report lacked detail about the project’s effect on groundwater, potential spills of contaminated water as well as oil, the possibility of natural gas leaks, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic.

“I’m concerned it’s inadequate in (assessing) the impact on groundwater,” said Molly Barnes of Los Olivos, adding she wanted the report to include the maximum amount of potable water that would be used for steam generation. “That’s not covered adequately.”

“It’s unclear how many gallons of produced wastewater Aera will place in percolation pit (that’s) unlined,” said Robert Perry, adding the draft EIR says the project could generate 70 to 150 oil spills. “Some of the field lies over the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, and it does not fully account for groundwater contamination.”

“We’re interested in the potential impacts of traffic,” said Suzanne Singh of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Commission. “That should be explored in greater detail.”

“One of the points I’m making is can (mitigations) reduce emissions to less than significant levels?” asked Vincent Brock of Santa Barbara, adding the draft EIR says the project will produce 1½ million tons of emissions. “Steam injecting is incredibly energy intensive.”

“Climate impacts should be Class 1,” said Michael Chakos of the Community Environmental Council of Santa Barbara, claiming the project’s emissions will equal that of the city of Carpinteria. “The carbon intensity at the site is misleading. It takes vast amounts of natural gas to pump oil. … They will be pumping high carbon intensity without an adequate emissions plan.”

A number of speakers wanted sections added that are not normally included in environmental impact reports, including Aera’s safety record and the socioeconomic impacts the project would have on the county.

“There are two important missing pieces,” said Michael Lopez of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 114. “There should be more detail about worker safety … and there’s no discussion of the socioeconomic impact.

Although advised to limit comments to the adequacy of the draft EIR, many of the speakers' comments ranged from what a great community partner Aera has been to how to assure Aera will be responsible for paying the full cost of spill cleanups.

The public comment period on the draft environmental impact report will continue until 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, said Kathryn Lehr, the county’s lead contact for the project.

A public hearing on the project will likely take place before the County Planning Commission in late spring, Lehr said.

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