A report on the status of oil wells, pipelines and facilities, including compliance with current regulations requested last March by the Board of Supervisors, was delivered Tuesday, and one operator stood out for its track record of violations.
According to the report, the Petroleum Unit staff inspections of all 2,450 wells and 125 related facilities in Santa Barbara County from 2015 through 2017 resulted in 161 notices of violation. Of those, 145 were directed toward Greka Oil & Gas Inc., which also received 35 of the 36 fines that were levied.
The Fire Department inspected 125 facilities annually during the same period and issued 676 violations. Of those, 342 went to Greka.
However, most of the violations were considered minor and were corrected in a timely manner, according to energy specialist Errin Briggs, of the Energy and Minerals Division of the Planning and Development Department.
The Air Pollution Control District inspected about 70 stationary pollution sources and issued 178 violations, with 82 of those going to Greka.
The report prompted one supervisor to call for lowering the county’s threshold for categorizing a company as a high-risk operator, but the idea didn’t gain a lot of traction with the rest of the board.
One suggestion that did gain support was that the next time a report on the county’s oil and gas industry is presented, the meeting take place in Santa Maria instead of Santa Barbara, since most of the production, transportation and processing facilities are in the northern part of the county.
Supervisors also asked that the next report include a financial component.
The report looked at onshore and offshore facilities as well as planned and proposed projects.
Briggs said onshore the county has more than 2,450 active wells whose products are processed at 125 facilities operated by 23 companies, with two main pipeline systems delivering products.
Offshore, 16 oil platforms are located in the state tidelands and outer continental shelf adjacent to the county, and eight of those transport oil and gas they produce to facilities onshore in the county; the rest deliver their products to facilities in Ventura County.
The Petroluem Unit of the Energy and Minerals Division, the county Fire Department and the county Air Pollution Control District all have regulatory jurisdiction over onshore facilities, but only the APCD has jurisdiction over offshore platforms.
According to the report, excluding the Plains All American Pipeline rupture, a total of 18 spills was reported over the nearly three-year period, Briggs said, and none of them impacted active waterways.
The highest spill volumes were in 2017, when 10 barrels of crude oil and 200 barrels of produced water were released.
But Briggs noted the number of spills have been trending downward.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf questioned why Greka and another operator hadn’t met the definition of a “high-risk operator” the board had established in county ordinances to address companies with bad records.
“As I look back on it, it seems it would be impossible for an operator to reach that definition,” Wolf said. “When you have one operator with a lot of notices of violation — which I know were minor, but a lot of minor violations can add up … .”
Dianne Black, assistant director of Planning and Development, said the issues of noncompliance for Greka were mainly failing to clear vegetation and not having proper signs.
She said both are important, but neither represented a significant threat to life.
“The goal (of the ordinance) is to get them back into compliance,” Black said.
Wolf also acknowledged the statistics of operators who had no violations.
“As alarming as some of these numbers were, I can’t disregard the fact we have a lot of good operators,” she said, adding she’d like to believe the county is moving in the right direction when it comes to spills and pollution.
Still, she wanted to tighten up the definition of a high-risk operator.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino disagreed, however, noting a lot of time was spent working out that definition.
“Changing it at this point would seem to be a reach simply because we haven’t had anybody on there,” he said. “The high-risk ordinance is aimed at those who continue to spill outside containment. I think it’s working.”
Wolf then suggested an intermediate step.
“You may not want to change the high-risk definition,” she said. “But when I see an operator receive 342 violations, over half (of those issued), it seems like there should be another level of enforcement.
“When this comes back, I hope there’s something in-between we can use for enforcement,” she continued. “When an operator accumulates this many violations, there has to be a consequence of that.”
One public speaker criticized the report for not containing a financial component, particularly for three proposed oil projects — Aera Energy’s East Cat Canyon Redevelopment Plan, ERG’s West Cat Canyon Revitalization Project and PetroRock’s UCCB Energy Project, also in West Cat Canyon.
Joe Armendariz, representing the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, said the county is “nickel and diming the industry to death. What’s missiong is the big-bang revenue for the county if you streamline the (permit) process and get these approved.”
He said if the three projects were approved in the next three to seven years, it would mean $150 million in property tax for the county.
But Ken Hough, of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, criticized the lack of information on the threat to groundwater contamination, particularly since the three projects would use steam injection to remove the oil.
Lavagnino said he would like to see an update on what alternatives the county has in the energy field and was critical of those who criticize the industry because they retain their dependence on oil, likening it to someone smoking a cigarette calling for an end to the tobacco industry.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said.