Company wants to overturn decision against temporary trucking plan
ExxonMobil filed a lawsuit in federal court this week, seeking to vacate the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ denial of its temporary trucking plan for the Santa Ynez Unit.
Exxon is arguing the board’s decision was “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful prejudicial abuse of discretion, violates the United States and California’s constitutions and impairs ExxonMobil’s vested rights to restart and operate” the Santa Ynez Unit, Meghan Macdonald, an ExxonMobil spokesperson, told the News-Press.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California Wednesday and first shared with the News-Press. It asks the court to vacate and set aside the board’s denial and instruct it to reconsider.
The Board of Supervisors nixed Exxon’s proposal to truck oil along area roads in a 3-2 vote in March. Some supervisors, including chair Joan Hartmann, expressed concerns about the environmental impact of the temporary trucking.
Exxon’s Santa Ynez Unit has three offshore platforms (Harmony, Heritage and Hondo) and an onshore processing center in Las Flores Canyon near Goleta. It shuttered operations in 2015 following the Plains All American Pipeline spill.
Exxon then moved its remaining inventory to a Phillips 66 Santa Maria Pump Station (without incident, the company noted in its complaint), and spent about $100 million annually to maintain the Santa Ynez Unit.
“ExxonMobil wants to bring its employees back to work and continue operating SYU to meet part of California’s energy needs in a safe and environmentally sound way,” the lawsuit said.
A representative for the county did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2017, Exxon began the application process for an interim trucking plan, which included working with the county’s Planning and Development staff on ways it would mitigate potential impacts on the community and environment.
The plan included trucking crude oil from the Santa Ynez Unit 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 for either seven years or until a pipeline became available.
Exxon set an annual limit of 24,820 trucks with an oil production maximum of 11,200 barrels per day. This plan would allow the Santa Ynez Unit to produce and process crude oil at only about 39% of its baseline capacity with a goal of returning to full capacity once a pipeline becomes available.
The company also said it would bar trucking during rainy periods to decrease the potential for oil to end up in waterways if there was a crash or spill.
Exxon’s lawsuit said a Planning and Development staff report from September 2021 found the project mitigated the possible impact of oil spills to the maximum extent feasible and its benefits outweighed the risks. Benefits of the project, according to the report, included returning locally produced oil to California markets, providing Santa Barbara County with more than $1 million in additional tax revenue annually and restoring jobs.
The report also said the project would not be detrimental to the general welfare, health or safety of the neighborhood and surrounding area.
However, the Planning and Development Commission, in a 3-2 vote, decided not to recommend the project. The board later rejected the proposal, also in a 3-2 vote.
“Is this really the direction to go when we are facing a climate crisis? For my way of thinking, that is just not the case,” Supervisor Hartmann said at the time. “In conclusion, it’s detrimental to the health and safety of the neighborhoods that this trucking would go by, and it’s not compatible with the surrounding areas, and the streets — particularly (State Route) 166 — and also the 101 are not designed for this kind of traffic.”
“I will support denial of the project simply because I cannot see how the safety impacts are mitigatable,” Supervisor Das Williams said, anticipating the project could result in fatal car accidents. “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.”
In its complaint, Exxon said the board came to its decision based on “conclusions not supported by substantial evidence” and “for reasons completely unrelated to its merits.”
“Rather than focus on the merits of the project, however, the Board improperly treated the consideration of the project as a referendum on offshore production as well as the transportation and use of crude oil in the County of Santa Barbara,” the complaint said. “But that was not the issue before it. The only question before the Board was whether the project complies with federal, state, and local law. It does. Ironically, while the Board purportedly made its decision in the name of environmentalism, the Project denial deprives consumers of a local, lower carbon intensive, and more heavily regulated energy source than foreign-produced oil and gas.”
Exxon said the Santa Ynez Unit oil has half the carbon intensity of oil imported overseas due to more stringent federal, state and local regulations. It said the Santa Ynez Unit has received 14 federal safety awards.
At the March board meeting, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper was one group that opposed the project. It noted the trucking route would pass over many coastal creeks and sensitive watersheds, including Gaviota Creek.
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.”
Recently, the 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 — urged local leaders to work with oil companies to ensure the community has a reliable energy resource, can foster good-paying jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through producing oil in a clean environment.
The chambers chastised the board for denying Exxon’s permit.
Exxon is represented by O’Melveny & Myers and Beveridge & Diamond PC in this complaint. email: firstname.lastname@example.org