The wheels move slowly in the permitting process, but Aera is seeing progress in its proposed East Cat Canyon project in Santa Barbara County.
More than two and a half years after Aera submitted its in-depth application to the county’s Planning and Development division, the project has advanced through initial rounds. It’s now undergoing the lengthy review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
As the lead CEQA agency, Santa Barbara County Planning and Development is preparing the all-important environmental impact report (EIR) needed to move the project forward.
“The project can’t be approved unless all significant environmental impacts have been identified and avoided or mitigated to the maximum extent feasible,” said Susan Perrell, environmental advisor. “A complete and thorough EIR helps minimize doubt and speculation that can lead to permit denial. We are working hard to provide the information that our agencies need, but at the same time, we’re pushing to wrap up the requests and move along to complete the EIR.”
In addition to reviewing the voluminous studies, plans and reports Aera has submitted, the county is seeking EIR input and comment from numerous federal, state and local government agencies. The draft EIR document is expected to be ready for public review and comment around March 2018, according to Perrell. The county is likely to issue a final EIR around summer 2018. It will then schedule a Planning Commission public hearing, probably to be held in late 2018.
“Almost everything we’ve been doing for the past few years is in preparation for that critical hearing,” Perrell said. “Three out of five planning commissioners must vote to certify the EIR for the project to be issued a permit. If we don’t get those votes, we may appeal to the Board of Supervisors, but it is typically a steeper uphill climb to get the supervisors to override their own appointed commissioners.”
The East Cat Canyon oilfield sits about 10 miles southeast of Santa Maria. At peak production, the field will produce about 10,000 barrels of oil every day. According to the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, Aera’s revival of the oilfield will create more than $1.3 billion in total economic activity, including construction, drilling and operating jobs. In addition, it’s projected to generate $133 million in state and federal taxes, and another $130 million in local tax revenues that support Santa Barbara County schools and public safety.
Among the project’s environmental benefits is a large, permanent and endowed Conservation Area that will be used for conservation, restoration, oak woodlands habitat development, outdoor education and possibly also public recreation.
“We’ve made many changes to ensure that our project is the best that it can feasibly be for the environment and the community,” Perrell said. “While a great number of community stakeholders know that its environmental, economic and community benefits create a clear path for permit approval, we expect some project opponents with different perspectives.”