Environmental impact report raises concerns over proposal
ExxonMobil’s proposal to truck oil out of its Las Flores Canyon facility along the Central Coast could face opposition from county officials after this week’s environmental impact report that the project could have “unavoidable” impacts.
On Monday, the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department released the final Supplemental Environmental Impact Review, which outlined several impacts of ExxonMobil’s proposed project ranging in severity from “significant” to “mitigatable.”
The project, as it currently stands, proposes trucking oil from Las Flores Canyon to the Santa Maria Pump Station via Highway 101 and to the Pentland Terminal in Kern County via State Route 166.
If approved, up to 70 trucks per day carrying more than 6,700 gallons of oil each would be traveling along the Central Coast to receiving facilities in Santa Maria and beyond.
According to Monday’s report, an accidental oil spill from a truck crash during transport is a Class 1 “unavoidable” impact of the project and has the potential to harm “sensitive resources including biological, cultural and water resources.” The report estimates that if an entire truckload of 160 barrels spilled, the oil would cover about a quarter of an acre and spread about 500 feet from where the spill occured.
The risk of these types of spills could be reduced, however, it is not outright avoidable, the report attests. According to historical data outlined in the report, the annual probability of an oil spill of five gallons or more is about once every 52 years for trucks headed to Santa Maria and about once every 17 years for trucks bound for Kern County.
Environmental officials, however, say that this number is largely understated.
In a news release, the Environmental Defense Center cited data from the California Highway Patrol that revealed 258 oil trucking accidents along ExxonMobil’s proposed route occured between 2015 and 2021, which resulted in 10 deaths and 110 injuries. One of these recorded incidents occurred in March 2020 when a truck crashed off of State Route 166 and spilled 4,500 gallons of oil into the Cuyama River above the Twitchell Reservoir.
Given the rate of trucking accidents, environmentalists say the approval of ExxonMobil’s proposed trucking would cause potential harm to drivers and wildlife along the Gaviota coast.
“A lot of times when people think about oil spills, they think about creeks and wildlife and environmental damage, but these kinds of accidents also kind of have a serious effect on public health and safety,” Linda Krop, chief counsel for the EDC, told the News-Press Wednesday. “And so when we looked at the history of oil tanker trucks, we found fatalities as well as impacts to the environment.”
Ms. Krop recalled the tanker oil spill that shut down Highway 101 during the Thomas Fire evacuations in 2018, which ultimately led to a highway closure that lasted 19 hours. She said allowing trucking opens the possibility for more accidents of this nature, which would impact both the environment and public safety.
In addition to the risk of oil spills, the county also identified other environmental impacts in the report that are deemed “significant but mitigatable.” These increased greenhouse gas emissions, diminished air quality and increased traffic on highways during peak hours in the morning and evening.
All of these environmental impacts could pose a challenge for ExxonMobil moving forward, especially with the release of the impact report coming just weeks before the project is to go before the county’s Planning Commission on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1. Following the Planning Commission hearing, the plan will move to the Board of Supervisors, where county officials will determine the fate of the project.
As the county policy currently stands, ExxonMobil is only allowed to transport oil via pipeline, and no trucking is permitted at this time. Therefore, this project proposal essentially asks the Board of Supervisors, who oversee the county’s transportation policy, to amend the current policy to allow for trucking until another pipeline can be built or the Plains Pipeline can be restored.
ExxonMobil was, however, granted an emergency permit from the county in 2016 to use trucks to remove oil the company had stored in the Las Flores Canyon facility.
But once the tanks were emptied, no additional trucking was allowed, according to Errin Briggs, a supervising planner at the county’s Planning and Development Department.
In addition to trucking, ExxonMobil is also proposing a phased reboot of three offshore drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, which have been closed since the Plains All American Pipeline leak in 2015.
Ms. Krop said before the shutdown, the platforms were the “largest single source of greenhouse emissions in the county.” She said restarting them would go against the region’s climate goals.
As the county prepares to review this project, Ms. Krop is concerned that officials may be focusing too narrowly on the impacts of trucking without thinking of the impacts of restarting drilling off the Central Coast.
“Our most fundamental concern is that the county is only looking at a small part of the project,” Ms. Krop said. “What the project really is, is that Exxon wants to resume drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel.
“This project is about oil development. It’s not just about trucking,” she later added. “And because the county is only focusing on the trucking, the actual risk and impacts of this project are woefully understated.”
Other environmental advocates are echoing Ms. Krop’s concerns, pointing to the state of the climate as a reason to deny this proposal.
Following the recent release of a United Nations climate report earlier this month, local environmentalists say these impacts pose a great risk to the region’s climate at a time when experts are alarmed about the rate of climate change around the world.
“In light of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, we are reminded that climate change is happening now, and it is worse than we thought,” Ken Hough, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, said in a statement. “We cannot afford to approve any new projects that will facilitate fossil fuel extraction in Santa Barbara County, including ExxonMobil’s proposal to restart its platforms and truck its oil. We need companies like ExxonMobil to stop polluting our atmosphere, air and waters, and to instead lead the renewable energy transition.”
Officials from ExxonMobil, however, argue that the only way to resume production is through trucking.
In a statement sent Wednesday to the News-Press, the company said that the company has worked to create an effective safety plan that follows more than 100 regulations set by the county and state. According to Julie King, the operations media manager with Exxon, the company logged more than 350,000 miles in 2016 without incident.
In an email, Ms. King said that resuming drilling and trucking operations at the Santa Ynez Unit will benefit the community in a variety of ways. “Resuming operations at the SYU would bring a number of benefits to Santa Barbara, including local jobs and millions in vital tax revenues for county schools, public safety and healthcare services,” Ms. King wrote in an email. “California currently uses all of the oil it produces and must import nearly 70 percent from foreign countries.
“Restarting SYU will provide energy and products demanded by the California market, where it is heavily regulated by the county and state, rather than relying on oil imported from across the world where we have no control over its environmental protections and receive none of the substantial benefits – like jobs and funding for public services —that our local industry brings to this community.”