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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 12th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 24 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 24

Planning Commission votes to approve extension on Foxen pipeline project, community members advocate for additional environmental review


It’s been more than eight years since ERG Operating Co. LLC, an oil and energy company, submitted its initial application for the Foxen Petroleum Pipeline Project, a 2.9-mile pipeline proposed to replace the current practice of trucking crude oil from the Cat Canyon oil field. On Aug. 5, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission voted to stretch that timeline a bit longer by approving an extension on the pipeline’s development permit until Aug. 5, 2021.

TerraCore argues that its Foxen pipeline project is entirely independent from its interest in Cat Canyon drilling expansion, and therefore does not require additional environmental review. Environmental advocates say otherwise.

The meeting began with a report from the county’s planning and development department, during which county staff recommended that the Planning Commission approve the extension request from TerraCore Operating Company, which took over ERG’s assets in 2019. TerraCore also requested that the pipeline project’s existing environmental impact report (EIR), certified by the commission in 2015 when the project was first approved, would continue to be sufficient for the project moving forward. The county staff report concurred.

“The environmental setting has not changed, and no new significant environmental effects would occur,” said County Planner Jacquelynn Ybarra at the commission meeting. “The project’s original policy and ordinance consistency continues to apply, and therefore pursuant to section 15162 of CEQA, no additional environmental review is needed for this time extension request.”

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, publishes a set of guidelines annually. Section 15162, as Ybarra referred to, determines whether a project needs subsequent environmental review. Commissioner Michael Cooney expressed concerns over this conclusion, citing issues raised by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), an environmental protection organization.

“The conclusion of the staff as far as the need for any additional environmental review does not seem to take into account the various issues raised by EDC,” Cooney said. “The issue of whether we can still find that there was adequate environmental review—isn’t that put back in issue by this extension request?”

While the county staff report concluded that the project does not require additional review, community members who spoke during public comment felt otherwise. 

Tara Messing, staff attorney at the EDC, said that the Foxen pipeline project is intrinsically tied to the West Cat Canyon Revitalization Plan Project, because TerraCore is currently seeking expansion of its operations there. For this reason, she argued, failing to conduct a singular environmental review of the two projects constitutes a form of illegal piecemealing, making the pipeline’s previously certified EIR inadequate.

“Piecemeal environmental review is prohibited under CEQA,” Messing said during public comment. “The impacts from the Foxen pipeline and the West Cat Canyon project must be analyzed as a whole.”

She further argued that new information from the West Cat Canyon project’s environmental report, released in early 2019, “triggers the need for a subsequent EIR pursuant to the CEQA guidelines.”

Most prominent among these 2019 findings, Messing said, are the negative impacts to clean water and biological resources from oil spills, which she called “now substantially more severe.”

“CEQA prohibits chopping up one large project into many little projects in order to diminish the significant environmental impacts from that project, which is what we have here,” Messing told the Sun. “It really needs to be analyzed together as one project, and the reason that it is one project is based on statements in the EIRs that show the pipeline wouldn’t be constructed unless the oil project is approved.”

The statement Messing refers to is in section 4.4 of the Cat Canyon 2019 EIR. It reads, “At this time, it is unknown if the Foxen pipeline would be constructed without implementation of the proposed [Cat Canyon] project.”

Messing said this statement does not rule out the possibility that the two projects depend on one another, and in that case should be treated as one. But according to county staff’s analysis, the two projects are independent, and therefore processing them separately does not rise to piecemealing. 

“The environmental community in this case is saying the pipeline and the [oil] well development is all part of the same project, and therefore it should be processed together and analyzed together,” County Energy, Minerals, and Compliance Division Supervisor Errin Briggs told the Sun. “We’re saying, no, the pipeline is independent and separate from development of the wells. … They could build the wells without the pipeline, or they could build the pipeline without the wells.”

Planning Commissioner John Parke questioned this analysis. He recalled that the pipeline would allow more daily oil movement from Cat Canyon than current trucking methods, which could indicate the financial dependency of the pipeline project on the Cat Canyon expansion project.

“I know that the description of the [pipeline] project was that there would be 8,000 to 9,000 barrels a day transported by pipeline,” Parke said. 

But, he continued, if the delivery of oil remained by truck, “then it would be approximately 4,800 barrels a day.” 

“It sure seemed, at least then, that they were economically related,” Parke said of the projects.

Nathan Eady of SCS Engineers, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of TerraCore, responded to Parke, stating that the projects do not depend on one another economically.

“At the time, it was really ERG’s intent … that the Foxen Pipeline really had an independent utility,” Eady said. “Even from a cost savings perspective, if you are an oil and gas operator and you are strictly pursuing this pipeline for business purposes, it saves you a considerable amount of money on your transportation costs, depending on how much oil you’re producing.”

Additionally, the proposed pipeline has the potential to process a larger amount of oil each day than TerraCore currently produces in Cat Canyon, which, Eady argued, indicates that the pipeline can serve other companies besides TerraCore.

“[TerraCore] looked at how much oil they felt that they could produce with those existing facilities, and then designed a pipeline that was bigger than that,” Eady said. “The Foxen Pipeline was approved with a 25,000 barrels per day total throughput, so that there would be a surplus of volume if other carriers in the Cat Canyon region wanted to tap into the pipeline.”

Eady added that TerraCore plans to build the pipeline regardless of getting approval to expand its operations in Cat Canyon, going a step further than the 2019 EIR which states this to be “unknown.”

Commissioners Parke and Cooney ultimately voted against approving the extension after voicing additional concerns over the impact that the project would have on the local Western spadefoot toad population. But with the other commissioners in favor, the extension was approved 3-2.

Elena Salinas, a volunteer with Food & Water Watch Santa Barbara, told the Sun that the outcome was “frustrating, to say the least” for those who spoke during public comment. 

“Everyone spoke against this request that TerraCore made, and the Planning Commission still went against people,” she said. “What is the point of these hearings if you’re not going to listen to the comments?”

Salinas said she plans to keep advocating for environmental causes, as well as increasing the public’s ability to engage with local government.

“There’s a youth coalition right now that is going to be speaking to one of the planning commissioners, and we’re going to be talking about issues like these and also making environmental impact reports more accessible,” she said. “Hopefully this is the beginning.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at

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