ExxonMobil says practice will be safe, but local environmentalists think otherwise
Allowing ExxonMobil to transport crude oil on Highway 101 and State Route 166 is a prospect that faces considerable pushback from local environmental groups.
But the oil corporation insists that it is a safe practice that will bring considerable economic benefit to Santa Barbara County. It’s also not without its share of local support.
Last month, Santa Barbara County released an environmental impact report regarding ExxonMobil’s proposal to transport crude oil via tanker trucks on the highways as an early step toward restarting its three offshore platforms that were shut down in 2015 after the Plains All American Pipeline ruptured and led to a large oil spill.
Since Lines 901 and 903 of the Plains All American Pipeline broke, the pipeline has been non-operational and the Santa Ynez Unit, the three ExxonMobil facilities that produced the oil transported through the pipeline, has been shut in with all equipment maintained in a preserved state. The proposal to allow a limited amount of crude oil to be trucked would begin a phased restart of the SYU facilities.
According to the report, the proposed project would allow for seven-days-a-week, 24-hour trucking of crude oil from the SYU, with a maximum of 70 trucks leaving the facility within a 24-hour period. Each individual truck would transport about 160 barrels of crude oil for a daily average oil production rate of 11,200 barrels, about a third of the oil production rate from the SYU before it was shut down.
The trucks would be loaded at the ExxonMobil Las Flores Canyon facility and deliver the crude oil to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Pump Station, or the Plains Pentland Terminal in Kern County.
Trucking crude oil would cease after seven years or once a replacement pipeline is installed, whichever is shorter.
The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission will hold hearings for the project on Sept. 2 and 9 before voting on it.
Sorting the impacts crude oil trucking into categories of descending levels of adverse impacts, Class I, II, III and IV, the report found only one impact in the most severe category. With a Class I impact defined as one that “cannot be effectively avoided or mitigated” or have its adverse effects reduced “to insignificant levels,” the only one the report found met this level is a tanker truck spilling oil due to an accident.
This possibility is one that those opposed to the project are adamant about avoiding. Maggie Hall, senior attorney for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Center representing local interest group Get Oil Out! and nonprofit Santa Barbara County Action Network, said transporting oil via truck is “inherently risky, as we’ve seen with many recent tanker-truck accidents.”
Ms. Hall and her clients are not only opposed to the practice of trucking oil on the highways, but also ExxonMobil’s long-term goal of restarting its three offshore SYU facilities. The attorney remarked that the SYU facilities have a “history of fracking and acidizing,” both of which she called unsafe.
“We’re dealing with unconventional, dangerous practices if these platforms are allowed to resume productions,” she said.
Additionally, she said that those opposed to the project “want to see a shift away from this type of energy production” in favor of renewable energy sources, and also want to ensure that the Santa Barbara Channel’s ecosystem is protected.
“Big picture, we’re concerned about any oil drilling in this sensitive marine environment,” she said.
ExxonMobil, however, assures that transporting crude oil via tanker truck is a safe proposition under its direction.
ExxonMobil spokesperson Julie King told the News-Press that the company has worked with Santa Barbara County to develop “an extensive transport safety plan” that “fully complies” with its environmental land-use regulations.
She stated that the corporation has an exhaustive list of regulations to follow, which it obeys to the letter.
“Our trucking routes must be approved by the county, and we must follow more than 100 laws, rules and regulations and policies at local, state and federal levels governing our oil production and transportation, which are among the strictest in the world,” she said.
She added, “We carefully select trucking companies and require them to meet or exceed all regulatory requirements and safety standards.”
As for the eventual revamping of the SYU facilities envisioned under the project, Ms. King remarked that it will generate more jobs for Santa Barbara, many of which were lost after ExxonMobil was forced to halt production in 2015.
Prior to the Plains All American Pipeline rupturing, the SYU facilities had 330 people working. Keeping the facilities in stasis only requires about 60 people.
“Approval of our application will bring these folks home and get people working again,” Ms. King said.
Another benefit from reactivating the SYU, according to Ms. King, is more than $4.5 million in annual taxes it would generate for Santa Barbara schools, as well as nearly $2 million a year in taxes for public safety and local services.
In an interview with the News-Press, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter director Jonathan Ullman was unimpressed with this idea, calling oil facilities impacting the tax base “a myth perpetrated by the oil companies.”
“Oil drilling does not contribute to the tax base in any significant way. It also does not contribute to school funding in any significant way. The vast majority of our schools are paid for by taxpayers,” he said.
Bruce Porter, a member of the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District board between 2008 and 2016, expressed support for allowing crude oil trucking and eventually restarting the three oil rigs.
Recalling his experience sitting on the board, Mr. Porter told the News-Press that the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District and the elementary school district Vista del Mar Union were directly funded by property taxes from properties along the coast that produced oil.
In 2015, the same year Mr. Porter served as the high school district’s board president, the rupturing of the pipeline and subsequent oil spill caused the value of those properties to plummet. This he said resulted in the school district losing $800,000, with Vista del Mar Union being even more impacted and approaching bankruptcy because of its shortfall.
He suspects the elementary school district doesn’t have long before it’s forced to throw in the towel.
“It’s very few years before they can’t continue anymore,” Mr. Porter said.