ExxonMobil withdraws pipeline replacement application

After finding that the potential impacts associated with constructing a new pipeline were “unnecessary,” Pacific Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, withdrew its application to replace lines 901 and 903, Julie King, an ExxonMobil Corporation spokesperson told the Sun in an email

“The company is focused on safely restarting the pipeline and is working with federal and state agencies to progress that process,” King said. 

Pipelines 901 and 903 caused the 2015 Refugio oil spill that released 123,000 gallons of crude oil in the Pacific Ocean along the Gaviota Coast. 

click to enlarge ExxonMobil withdraws pipeline replacement application
File photo courtesy of Santa Barbara County
APPLICATION WITHDRAWN: ExxonMobil subsidiary Pacific Pipeline Company withdrew its application to replace pipelines 901 and 903, which caused the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill, and plans to use the existing infrastructure to resume operations.

In a letter to the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department, Exxon Venture Manager Andrew Craig said that existing federal and state environmental reviews indicated that restarting the existing pipeline is “likely the least environmentally damaging practical alternative” under the Federal Clean Water Act. 

“Lastly, there is also a high degree of local permitting and business uncertainty created by recent actions that has impacted investment commitment as well as timing assurances to customers,” Craig said in his letter. 

The replacement project was first submitted by former line owners Plains Pipeline L.P. in 2017, according to the county Planning and Development website. In 2022, the county began the environmental impact report process and later approved the ownership change to ExxonMobil.

In the meantime, ExxonMobil submitted several proposals to the county—including one to truck oil from its offshore facilities to refineries in Santa Maria and Kern County and another to install 16 new safety valves on the existing pipeline. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors denied ExxonMobil’s trucking proposal and couldn’t take action on the safety valves due to a tie vote. 

“The county was not able to come to a decision on the safety valves, so Exxon could reply and try to change that vote, but the valves don’t prevent an oil spill,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). “You could potentially lockdown the pipeline and you could reduce the amount of oil in a spill … but you still are going to have a large spill if you are running oil on a damaged pipeline.” 

Krop represented Get Oil Out! and the Santa Barbara County Action Network in opposing Exxon’s projects and works to halt oil operations in the county. 

“We’re concerned about any action that would allow Exxon to restart its offshore platforms; particularly we’re concerned about restarting the existing pipeline because the federal report after the spill showed how corroded the pipeline is,” Krop said. 

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration report, lines 901 and 903 spilled because external corrosion thinned the pipe wall to a level where it ruptured. 

“Usually there’s one point puncture or a weld that malfunctions so you have a spill from one problem, one place on the pipeline, but in this case the entire pipeline is corroded because of the design and technology,” Krop said. “Even though there have been some repairs where the leak occurred, it’s our understanding that other parts of the pipeline have not been repaired.” 

Now, ExxonMobil will work with the state fire marshal, the agency in charge of regulating oil pipelines, to figure out required repairs to the existing pipeline to make it operable. Krop said the EDC will be shifting its efforts and directing concerns to the state fire marshal. 

“The fact that they have withdrawn a new pipeline application before they knew it was safe to operate the existing pipeline was a surprise to us,” she said. “EDC and our clients do not want to see the platforms restarted because of potential oil spills and climate change impacts and a host of other impacts.” 

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