The draft environmental impact report on the proposed Aera East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Project has been released by the Santa Barbara County Planning & Development Department for public review and comment.

Members of the public can submit written comments about the draft EIR until Jan. 28, and a meeting to receive both oral and written comments about it is set for Jan. 17 in Santa Maria, with a video hookup in Santa Barbara.

Aera Energy LLC wants to construct and operate as many as 296 wells for oil and gas production, steam injection, observation, nonpotable water production, water injection and fresh groundwater production on a site the company has leased about 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria.

The project would include construction of new processing facilities, up to seven steam generators, an office building, a multipurpose building, a warehouse and maintenance building and a facility control building.

Pipelines for steam distribution and natural gas delivery, utility lines for electricity distribution and control and data networks, a water tank and roadways for access would make up part of the infrastructure to be built on site.

Well drilling and operations would be located primarily in the southwestern portion of the project site, according to the Planning Department staff.

A proposed 14-mile, 8-inch natural gas pipeline and associated facilities would extend from Aera’s project site westward along Palmer Road, Dominion Road and East Clark Avenue to Southern California Gas Co.’s line at Divide Station on Graciosa Road.

One of the issues raised by project opponents is that the operation will use tremendous amounts of fresh water in a county where drought conditions continue despite relief experienced in other areas.

But according to county staff, the operation will use only nonpotable water, not fresh water, for drilling or production.

A fresh water system with a 3,000-barrel tank and water distribution pipelines is planned for drinking water, fire protection, lavatories and showers, equipment cleaning, dust control and minor landscape irrigation.

Evaluation process

The draft EIR is the culmination of the County Planning Department’s four years of studies and analysis of potential environmental impacts from the project that will include Aera reconfiguring 11 existing parcels into 12 parcels averaging 140 acres each.

“This is an important step for our project,” said Rick Rust, Aera’s Santa Barbara County representative, who noted a lot of people have been asking questions about the process involved in developing the draft EIR, which is done by the county, not by Aera.

“You have to apply for a project, which was done years ago,” Rust said. “Then there’s a whole bunch of studies that have to be done to be sure we protect the environment.”

He said areas studied include such things as biological resources, air quality, noise, traffic and transportation, cultural and tribal resources, surface and groundwater quality, geology, climate change, hazardous materials, land use and policies.

“All of those are considered,” he said, adding that public comments are collected, evaluated and responded to in a final EIR.

“We take our hats off in gratitude to the Planning Department staff,” Rust said. “They’ve been very thorough and consistent in their review and mitigations. It’s been a lengthy process, but it has to be to do it right. We’re grateful for their effort.”

He said during that process, an alternative footprint was developed that leaves approximately 94 percent of the project site undisturbed, including a 500-acre permanent conservation area.

The smaller footprint also reduced the number of oak trees that must be removed to about 1 percent of the oaks on the site, Rust said.

EIR findings

In general, the draft EIR found numerous potentially significant environmental impacts in almost all categories, but most of them can be reduced to less-than-significant impacts through implementation of the mitigation measures proposed by the applicant or recommended in the document.

Still, the report found potentially significant and unavoidable effects on biological resources, surface and groundwater quality and land use.

County Planning Department staff noted the conservation easement would serve to mitigate some unavoidable project impacts and provide conservation, educational and recreational opportunities.

In addition to impacts from construction of facilities and operation of the oil field, the draft EIR also considered alternative projects that ranged from no project to moving the project to other sites, using alternative heating technologies, conventional drilling, renewable energy projects, alternative pipeline routes, and oak tree avoidance.

Some of those were dropped because they did not achieve the project’s goals.

“Our goal is to provide the energy California needs while protecting people and the environment,” Rust said.

Other alternatives were pursued further in the study and analysis, leading to the determination that the environmentally superior alternative would combine the oak avoidance alternative for oil field development and operation, using the Plains or Phillips 66 pipelines alternatives for crude oil transport and rerouting the natural gas pipeline.

The draft EIR also examined the cumulative effects of the Aera project plus other projects proposed in the same area, including the ERG West Cat Canyon Revitalization Plan Project consisting of 233 steam-flooded wells, the PetroRock UCCB Production Plan for 231 cyclic steam-injection wells and the 2.9-mile ERG Foxen Petroleum Pipeline.

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