County commission reviews addition of 16 new valves for pipeline now owned by ExxonMobil
The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission is calling for more research on addition of valves to the old Plains All American Pipeline, now owned by ExxonMobil.
The pipeline has been shut down since a 2015 rupture that resulted in the Refugio oil spill off the Gaviota Coast. ExxonMobil bought the pipeline in October.
Meeting Wednesday in Santa Barbara, the commission voted 3-2 to direct staff to conduct further research. This could lead to either ultimate denial of the applicants’ request for the upgrade or further review under the California Environmental Quality Act. Staff will report findings back to the planning commission during the April 26 planning commission meeting when this item is resumed.
The motion passed 3-2 with commissioners Larry Ferini (4th District) and Victor Martinez (5th District) voting in opposition.
The staff report at Wednesday’s hearing was presented by Katie Nall. This hearing concerned the appeal of the Plains Line 901-903 Valve Upgrade Amendment. This is a request for an amendment in a coastal development permit to install 16 new valves along the existing 901-903 pipeline system running from the Gaviota Coast to Los Padres National Forest within Santa Barbara County.
The project would amend the originally approved Celeron/All American Pipeline Project Major Conditional Use Permit and final development plan as revised in 1988.
Most of the public comments were in support of the appellants seeking denial of the valve project. They said the broader issue goes beyond the approval of ExxonMobil’s request for the 16 valves.
The public commenters and the commissioners expressed concern that the new valves would lead to a reopening of the pipeline or even construction of a new pipeline.
The project is seen as necessary to comply with Assembly Bill 864, which was authored by First District Supervisor Das Williams when he was an Assembly member. AB 864 mandates operators to install best available technology on existing pipelines within the coastal zone to reduce the volume released in the event of a potential line failure. Installation of BAT is required by April 1.
Even if the appeal is denied and the project is approved, the April 1 deadline will not be met because the planning commission has continued the issue until its April 26 meeting.
The applicants have filed for an extension and are waiting to hear back on that request.
Of the 16 valves, five are check valves that utilize an automatic shut-off system with one-way flow closure. The remaining 11 valves are motor-operated valve stations with an electric shut off that is connected to a utility line or solar power.
Staff prepared an addendum that pursuant to CEQA section 15164, no additional environmental impact report would be required. The project is also categorically and statutorily exempt from environmental review under a number of CEQA exemptions: sections 15301 (b), 15303 (d), 15311 and 15284.
The amendment was conditionally approved by the county zoning administrator on Aug. 22.
Three separate appeals were submitted on Sept. 1 by the Tautraium family, Gaviota Coast Conservancy and GreyFox LLC.
According to county staff, the project is in conformance with all necessary policies including the comprehensive plan, the Coastal Land Use Plan, and all provisions of the Land Use Development Code and Article II including the Gaviota Coast Plan.
“The pipeline beyond the valves is the broader issue being addressed here today,” said 5th District Commissioner Victor Martinez during deliberations. “CEQA has been mentioned as a means to stop the pipeline from restarting. That isn’t why we are here today.
“I am coming to agreement with staff. This is not a CEQA event…I am in support of staff recommendations and would deny appeals.”
The attorneys involved in the hearing received praise from 1st District Commissioner C. Michael Cooney.
“It was such a good hearing in many respects with all positions presented and sub-presented according to positions of parties,” Mr. Cooney said during deliberations. “I appreciated that. I thought it was similar to a court hearing at various stages. We had some of the most skilled attorneys before us today…We are better off for the skill and presentations of all attorneys.
“I look at the first finding in the staff report, which says that the proposed project is exempt from environmental review under CEQA. I can’t get by that first sentence,” Mr. Cooney said. “Appellants presented various reasons for environmental review. I feel we would do a disservice to the constituency and county and all who have appreciated not to deal further with environmental issues raised … I would recommend sending the matter back to staff to look at deliberations …
“I think it needs to be more than the addendum prepared by staff … This valve project is an end run to starting up another pipeline on the Gaviota Coast. I can’t get by that. I can’t support the very first finding we are asked to support … If I were forced to decide today, I would deny the project and uphold the appeals.” Commissioner Cooney was ultimately the one who made the motion to direct staff to conduct further research concerning CEQA options and report back to the commission on April 26. Second District Commissioner Laura Bridley seconded the motion.
“I cannot argue with staff findings,” said 4th District Commissioner Larry Ferini during deliberations. “I understand the emotional charge, but I don’t think this is the place to stop the pipeline. That is what the public wants. I can’t support that at this time on this project. I would move to deny the appeal and uphold the zoning administrators.”
Among those attending Wednesday’s hearing was Brady Bradshaw, senior oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The ownership and operation of this pipeline is so convoluted and risky that it makes sense for the commission to want more information before making a decision,” Mr. Bradshaw said in an email to the News-Press. “But it’ll be tough for Exxon to show that the pipeline is safe for local communities and wildlife, given how harmful the 2015 Refugio disaster was. The only way to reliably avoid another spill is to make Exxon clean up its rusty pipeline and get its decaying offshore rigs out of the ocean.”
Another public commenter, Santa Barbara resident Angela Shu, expressed her support for the appeals.
“I’m a transplant. I have lived here two years, and it wasn’t easy at first, but obviously the most amazing thing about living here is the terrain, and the scenery and the environment, the biodiversity, and the communities and the diverse communities here.
Ms. Shu, 30, indicated she was moving out of Santa Barbara with her partner but added they hoped to return one day. “We hope we can one day come back here and that the ocean, the land and everything is protected … I hope we do thorough environmental research and investigation on this.”