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Solar photovoltaic system installation is the fastest growing occupation, but it won’t provide the North County with high-paying head-of-household jobs like those entry-level positions in the oil and gas industry will eventually lead to, according to an economics professor who spoke at an energy forum Thursday in Buellton.

But weighing the costs of providing those jobs compared to the benefits they will produce is a complex process that involves more elements than most people realize, said Peter Rupert, executive director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, the keynote speaker at the forum organized by the EconAlliance.

Yet environmentalists who attended the forum were critical of Rupert’s analytical process, saying it failed to take into account the cost of potential environmental damage should spills or other accidents occur in production.

And while some said Santa Barbara County should be pushing toward using only renewable energy within the next decade or so, county supervisors in a forum panel discussions said they generally support that idea but getting those kinds of projects started is neither simple nor easy.

Those were just some of the conclusions to come out of the afternoon forum titled “Energy: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It” sponsored by the EconAlliance and the Santa Barbara Foundation at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott.

In addition to Rupert’s keynote address on the “Facts of Life About the Economic Impact of North County Energy,” the forum included a welcome by Buellton Mayor Holly Sierra and two panels.

The first panel for Stakeholder Response was made up of Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians; Dave Rodriguez, immediate past state director and former national vice president for the Far Western Region of the League of United Latin American Citizens; and Ashley Costa, executive director of Lompoc Valley Community Healthcare Organization.

It was moderated by Ron Gallo, president and chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara Foundation.

The second panel for Regulator Response consisted of county 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, Board Chairman and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams and Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation.

Mike Brown, former Santa Barbara County executive officer, was the moderator.

Rupert’s presentation seemed to have one core assertion about choosing energy projects that everyone at the forum appeared to buy into.

“We want to make good choices,” he told the crowd. “There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to be aware of all the impacts. … Benefits are easy to measure. Weighing the costs is not so easy.”

To illustrate how impacts can often be hidden, Rupert used an example from a study of how switching to all electric vehicles would damage Monster drinks.

The study found that if all vehicles were electric, gasoline stations would go away. Many gas stations also have convenience stores, and 63 percent of Monster drink sales are from convenience stores.

But Rupert said despite predictions and mandates, American’s won’t all be driving electric vehicles anytime soon.

“Gas-powered vehicles aren’t going away by 2050,” he said, and in fact a chart showed a majority of vehicles will be gasoline-powered at that time. Battery-powered electrics will show the most growth, but they will still make up a small percentage of the total.

Half of the electric energy will be produced by solar power, and half will be produced by natural gas.

So oil and gas production will still be necessary and an important part of the economy, not only in providing jobs and direct expenditures in the community but, also, in property taxes.

Rupert noted Aera Energy’s project in Cat Canyon will have a total economic impact of $345 million and will produce 2,500 jobs.

He also said big oil producers in Santa Barbara County pay the most in property taxes, contributing some $20 million to county coffers, and Venoco’s bankruptcy resulted in a property tax loss of $4 million for the county.

That conclusion didn’t wash with Katie Davis, chair of the Santa Barbara Group of the Sierra Club’s Los Padres Chapter.

“He talks about losing oil taxes, but what he didn’t put in context is there’s not a lot (of oil operations), so it’s a small percentage of the total,” Davis said following Rupert’s presentation. “The reason Venoco went bankrupt was they had this huge spill. That affected everything.”

She also claimed ERG Operating Co. hasn’t paid its taxes for years and owes the county $44 million.

In conclusion, Rupert said the county needs to develop a comprehensive plan for transportation and energy efficiency that will look at general equilibrium in costs and benefits with no unintended consequences — because all consequences should be considered.

During the Regulator Response panel discussion, the two supervisors agreed on some points and disagreed on others.

“I have a history of supporting the oil industry, and I’m proud of that,” Lavagnino said, noting he represents the poorest of the supervisorial districts. “I don’t support it because money comes rolling in (to the oil companies). I support it because I see results in (county) revenue and jobs.

“I’ll be just as big a cheerleader for a solar energy project when it comes in,” he added. “I’ll be just as big a cheerleader for a wind energy project when it comes in.”

Williams admitted that oil has “played a huge role” in the county’s history.

“But I also (see) that we’re in a time of transition from oil, the energy source of the past, to the energy source of the future,” he said. “Everybody should be doing the best they can to reduce energy consumption. Does that mean the oil industry will go away? No. (But) our future should be in renewable energy.”

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