The conclusions drawn from an overview of oil and gas production in Santa Barbara County apparently depend on an individual’s point of view regarding the industry, as a report presented to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday drew both praise and criticism.
“I’ve had different people read the same report,” said 5th District Supervisor and Board Chairman Steve Lavagnino. “For people who support the industry, things are moving ahead well. Those who do not support it so much see it as a complete indictment of the industry.
“One of the things it should do for folks is make people understand … there is an alphabet of government agencies … out there looking (at operations),” he added.
A series of speakers representing the Environmental Defense Center criticized the report as well as the county for what they lack — an oil spill contingency plan and a full-time oil spill response coordinator, a position that has been vacant for more than a year.
The speakers also said the report should have included information on soil contamination, fire hazards, aquifer injection, trucking impacts, methane emissions, fresh water consumption and the frequency and nature of inspections and violations.
Supervisors agreed the next annual report should include that information, but they also wanted to know how many jobs the industry provides and how much revenue it generates for the county.
Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart generally praised the report.
“This report is comprehensive in nature,” Hart said. “I think it’s a useful tool … and doing it annually is valuable.”
Inspections conducted by three county departments, a special district and two state agencies, the number of violations found and how much money was generated by fines were the primary focus of the report.
But it also provided a summary of spills, an overview of existing facilities’ operational status, new projects going through the approval process and proposed federal offshore and onshore leasing programs.
John Zorovich, deputy director of the Planning and Development Department’s Energy, Minerals and Compliance Division, said the department has noticed a recent change in the county’s oil industry.
In the past six or seven years, smaller operations have been purchasing leases from the larger companies that have operated here.
That prompted 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann to ask how that shift might affect the cleanup of an oil production site.
“If a smaller company goes bankrupt, what kind of liability carries over from previous owners?” Hartmann asked.
Zorovich said the County Code doesn’t address that.
But Pat Abel, of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said her agency can go back as far as 1996 to have previous site operators take responsibility for decommissioning, cleanup and mitigation.
If a lease was sold before 1996, however, the prior owner can’t be required to take responsibility, she said, adding the state can use bond funds when there is no operator to shoulder cleanup costs.
“For every barrel of oil produced, the state has an assessment to address abandonment and mitigation,” she said.
A summary of violation notices issued from 2015 to 2018 was eye-opening, with the six agencies issuing a combined total of 1,352 notices of violation.
Of those, 720 were issued to a single operator — HVI Cat Canyon Inc., formerly Greka Oil & Gas.
“If you separate out Greka from all the others — they gave the rest of the operators a black eye — the rest is stellar,” Andy Caldwell, of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, said during public comment.
Zorovich said the division’s Petroleum Unit inspects more than 2,450 existing wells and 125 related facilities every year.
During the four-year period, the unit found 156 violations, with 134 of those committed by HVI Cat Canyon, he said.
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The greatest number of violations — 65 — was found in 2017, and 55 of those were committed by HVI Cat Canyon.
Fines collected by the unit over 2017 and 2018 totaled $154,000, Zorovich said.
The Fire Department inspects about 140 facilities annually and issued 732 violations over the four-year period, with 392 of those given to HVI Cat Canyon. The high was 381 violations in 2016, with HVI Cat Canyon receiving 163 that year.
However, Zorovich noted most of the violations were considered minor and were corrected in a timely fashion.
Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District inspects about 70 stationary sources each year, and over the four-year span the district issued 250 violations — 125 of those to HVI Cat Canyon — with a peak in 2016 of 71 violations, 38 of those to HVI Cat Canyon.
Fines collected by the district in 2017 and 2018 totaled $466,000.
County Environmental Health Services’ Hazardous Materials Unit inspects approximately 29 facilities and issued 10 violations over the two-year period of 2017 and 2018. Three of the violations were issued to HVI Cat Canyon.
As with the Fire Department, most of the violations were considered minor and were corrected quickly, Zorovich said.
During the same two-year period, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources inspected about 500 facilities and issued 196 violations, with HVI Cat Canyon again receiving the most at 68, although Southern California Gas Co. received 34 in 2018.
Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued two violations in 2017 and 2018, one to HVI Cat Canyon for failing to submit a technical report detailing a potential injection well casing breach.
The other notice of violation was issued to Gaviota Terminal Co. for performing work within Alcatraz Creek that exceeded the scope of an approved plan.
Each year, a number of operators received no violations from the various agencies, a data point questioned by hazardous materials specialist Larry Bishop.
“The oil industry, by its very nature, is messy,” he said. “Violations are always found. There are no ‘zero violations,’ in my experience. This report was very charitable to the industry.”
Joe Armendariz, of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, countered that the oil industry in the county is the cleanest, most ethical and safest of anywhere in the world.
“You subject any industry to the fine-toothed comb of inspection, you’ll find violations,” he said.
But Dianne Black, director of the Planning and Development Department, said the “goal of inspections is to obtain compliance (with regulations), not to write notices of violation.”
So when minor violations were found, operators were given time to fix them, and generally that was done the same day.
Black said the department does the same thing with other industries under its regulatory jurisdiction.
As for spills, a total of 34, ranging from one barrel to 150 barrels, were reported from 2015 through 2018.
Those spills totaled 423.35 barrels of liquid, including both crude oil and produced water, but none had an impact on waterways, Zorovich said.
First District Supervisor Das Williams said after the Refugio oil spill, a state Assembly committee found the response plan insufficient, specifically for near-shore spills and those that take place at night.
“The biggest thing that happened last time is the contractor was on site within 45 minutes,” said 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam. “But he was prevented from doing anything by the feds because they didn’t want anyone doing anything until they got here.”
Zorovich said the County Office of Emergency Management is updating the oil spill contingency plan, and it will include provisions for dealing with those issues.