The ExxonMobil trucking proposal that spurred last week’s protest in Santa Barbara went before the county’s Planning Commission on Wednesday, where dozens of public commenters voiced opposition to the project because of environmental and safety concerns.
Commissioners engaged in an all-day meeting, where they heard from Exxon officials, representatives from the county’s Planning and Development Department and about 60 public commenters regarding Exxon’s proposal to begin trucking oil out of its Las Flores Canyon facility. The Planning Commission is tasked with providing a recommendation to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors about whether to approve or deny the project. The Supervisors will issue the official decision.
After deliberating at length on Wednesday, commissioners directed Planning and Development staff to return at a later date with drafted findings that support the commission’s recommended denial of the project before the proposal is heard by the Board of Supervisors.
Staff is expected to return to the Planning Commission on Nov. 3 with additional findings to support the project denial.
The brunt of Wednesday’s hearing centered on the environmental and safety impacts of ExxonMobil’s proposal to truck oil from its Las Flores Canyon facility to the Santa Maria Pump Station via Highway 101 and to the Pentland Terminal in Kern County via State Route 166. The project proposes sending 70 trucks per day to the SMPS and 68 trucks per day to the Pentland Terminal.
Exxon has also proposed a phased restart of three offshore drilling platforms in its Santa Ynez Unit, which have not been operational since the Plains All American Pipeline oil spill in 2015.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the Planning and Development Department discussed several environmental impacts of the project, which range in severity from “significant and unavoidable” to “adverse but not significant.”
In a Supplemental Environmental Impact Review (SEIR) released last month, the county found that one Class 1 unavoidable impact of the project would be oil spills or truck fires associated with the transportation of hazardous materials, which officials say could impact “biological, water and cultural resources at Las Flores Canyon and along the trucking routes.”
The SEIR also identified air quality and greenhouse gas emission impacts as “significant and mitigatable” impacts of the project.
In response to the environmental concerns, the county proposed a modified version of the project on Wednesday that would limit trucking to the Santa Maria Pump Station. The modified plan would also prohibit trucking during rainy periods and would allow daily trucking to increase to from 70 trucks to 78 trucks per day to “catch up” from rainy days off.
And the modified project includes provisions for the closure of the SMPS. If this were to occur, the county would allow Exxon to redirect oil trucking to the Pentland Terminal via State Route 166 with a daily maximum of 68 trucks per day.
If this modified project is approved, officials from the Planning and Development Department estimate that the risk of an accident would be reduced by 33%.
ExxonMobil officials also weighed in on the environmental impacts of the project during Wednesday’s meeting, telling commissioners that the company plans to submit a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan that would detail how the company plans to limit emissions from the project.
Officials also claimed that bringing Exxon’s crude oil back to California is an environmentally friendly choice because it would reduce the amount of oil shipped into the state from foreign sources.
According to the California Energy Commission, the state received 47.5% of its oil from foreign sources in 2020, and 58.4% from foreign sources in 2019. These foreign oil producers operate under “less stringent” environmental restrictions than California producers, Exxon officials said Wednesday, arguing that sourcing locally is the better option for the environment.
“Bringing our crude back to California makes sense from an environmental standpoint,” Patrice Surmeier, the regulatory lead with Exxon’s Santa Ynez Valley Unit, said Wednesday. “We will be displacing imported crude with high air carbon intensity that might also have been produced at a less stringent environmental and safety regulatory oversight. Every barrel of oil we bring into the market allows refineries to produce fuels from a source that is consistent with our community’s environmental values.”
Exxon officials also urged commissioners to consider the revenue and jobs the trucking will bring to the area. Prior to the Plains All American pipeline shutdown, Exxon paid more than $45 million in taxes to the county, according to Bryan Anderson, the asset manager for ExxonMobil’s Santa Ynez Unit. He told commissioners Wednesday that approving this proposal could contribute $4 million in funding for schools and $2 million to public safety, while also creating new jobs in the region.
Despite safety assurances and promises to enact environmental protections from both the county and Exxon, the vast majority of public commenters on Wednesday voiced opposition to the project, citing concerns about the environmental impacts and safety concerns.
Numerous public commenters expressed concerns about trucks traveling through North County on State Route 166, telling commissioners that the route is already heavily trafficked and additional trucks would be a danger to motorists and residents.
“I personally feel that it’s not the trucks and the drivers that are the danger. It’s just the increase of traffic on the road going right past our schools and our facilities in Cuyama within 250 feet of multiple businesses, churches, both elementary and high school, and the safety is the main issue,” Jan Smith, a Cuyama Joint Unified School District board member, said Wednesday. “I’ve driven the 166 three times a week in this past year, and the problem is that the highway just doesn’t have the capacity to hold this type of traffic.”
Tom Francis, the public lands advocate at Los Padres Forest Watch, voiced similar concerns during his public comment, explaining that State Route 166 is a windy mountainous road that passes through about eight miles of the Los Padres National Forest boundary. He said that approving this project would pose a danger to hikers looking to access trailheads off the highway.
“It is irresponsible and dangerous to approve a plan that would add an additional 68 trucks per day to travel this remote and windy route hauling tanks loaded with hazardous materials, posing safety risks to recreationists trying to access these trailheads,” Mr. Francis said.
Other public commenters expressed opposition to the project over environmental concerns associated with the increased risk of an oil spill and greater amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
“The proposed trucking of oil and any forward movement to foster our dependency on fossil fuels is unthinkable and irresponsible given the science-based need for change for more sustainable and healthy safe alternatives,” Buellton resident Nicole Martel said Wednesday. “We have those technologies in place and ready to transition away from fossil fuels, so why would we continue to support these antiquated and dangerous industries?”
“Approving this project is (moving the county) backward when it’s clearly time we need to move forward in service to the care, integrity and accountability needed to deal with the challenge California’s already facing,” she added.
While most public commenters opposed the project, a few residents voiced support for it, telling the board it would spearhead economic recovery in the region.
One of the supporters was Glenn Morris, the president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, who said approving the project would boost the economy and be an “important step toward COVID-19 recovery.”
“This project balances economics and jobs with safety, and will, if adopted, be subject in fact to the highest safety standards including regulations directly related to the trucks on the road,” Mr. Morris said. “While we can all envision a future where oil is significantly reduced in many aspects of our lives, the reality is that that day is not today. The choice today is not oil or no oil, but rather where we source that oil and whether we benefit and have influence over how it is produced.”
After the Planning Commission returns in November with additional findings to support the recommended denial of the project, the proposal will head to the Board of Supervisors for a final stamp of denial or approval.
The Planning Commission was originally set to return for the second day of hearings on Friday but canceled that meeting after directing staff to return with additional findings at a later date.