Santa Maria Chamber leader expresses concerns
About two months after the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors denied an ExxonMobil trucking plan, a coalition of local chambers of commerce is sounding an alarm about how it could impact future economic growth for the community.
In a recent joint letter, Santa Barbara County chambers of commerce — which includes the Buellton Chamber, Lompoc Valley Chamber, Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber, Santa Maria Valley Chamber and Solvang Chamber — charged “economic vitality of our county lost out to a vague worldview policy.”
It was a 3-2 vote in March by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors that caused the ire of the chambers. Then the board voted to deny a plan by ExxonMobil to mobilize oil tanker trucks through the area. Many of those in opposition, including board members, cited environmental and safety concerns as reasons for the denial.
So why did the chambers band together to decry the decision now?
“We wanted to be thoughtful and not react in the heat of the moment but to really think about what were the broader implications and put together a document that all of the chambers could agree to and that was well-considered,” Glenn Morris, president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, told the News-Press in an interview.
“I don’t expect a direct response from the board about the letter,” he added. “I do hope it causes them to think about how they balance their decisions and their desires to do good things around environmental issues, around aesthetic issues, and balance that against the need for families in this county to have good, high-paying jobs and for businesses to have more predictability in the decision-making process.”
Mr. Morris said he was particularly concerned about the standard this decision could set for other businesses, such as agriculture, that may wish to expand in the area. Expansion could mean additional trucks running up and down Santa Barbara County roadways to move product.
“Will the county then look back and say we have a precedent now that says trucks are bad? That’s a very concerning potential,” Mr. Morris said.
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper was one group that opposed the project when it was before the board. It noted the trucking route would pass over many coastal creeks and sensitive watersheds, including Gaviota Creek. Ted Morton, the executive director, pointed to a 2020 oil tanker spill as an example of the “devastating environmental impacts” that could occur if such an accident would stem from Exxon’s project.
And Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said “trucking is inherently dangerous.”
“Oil truck accidents cause fires and explosions, injure and kill people, and spill hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil every year onto roads and into waterways, harming water, biological and cultural resources,” she said in a March letter to the board. “The extraordinarily high rate of accidents makes trucking one of the worst forms of oil transport.”
“I will support denial of the project simply because I cannot see how the safety impacts are mitigate-able,” Supervisor Das Williams said at the time. “While I validate all of our political opinions and where we’re coming from in life, what I don’t validate is our driving habits as a society.”
Exxon’s plan had included interim trucking of crude oil to the Santa Maria Pump Station until its estimated shutdown next year. This would include about 78 round trips per day, seven days a week.
Then operations would pivot to the Pentland Terminal in Kern County either for seven years or until a pipeline became available.
Exxon had set an annual limit of 24,820 trucks with an oil production maximum of 11,200 barrels per day. It had also placed a ban on trucking during rainy periods to decrease the potential for oil to end up in waterways.
The ECHO Group, which works with veterans in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, had urged the board to approve the project. Steven Baird, its president and CEO, said many veterans lost their jobs when operations at the Santa Ynez Unit were shuttered. Mr. Baird said this project would give area veterans more job opportunities.
And Mr. Morris said many in the Santa Maria area either work for Exxon or would have been employed through this project.
Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino submitted a letter to the board in support of the project in March.
“We feel the impact of the job site pretty directly,” Mr. Morris said.
“This is a really difficult time to be running a business — the interest rates are up, the pandemic impacts are still there, the labor market hasn’t recalibrated, supply chains are a mess, at all levels of government there is increasing regulation and oversight,” he continued. “I don’t want to say Santa Barbara is unique in being a difficult place to do business. But when we have discretion as a community to make decisions about whether we make job creation harder or easier, I’d like to at least see some of those decisions tip toward the easier side of the ledger.”