A U.S. District Court judge upheld the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ decision to deny ExxonMobil’s proposal to truck crude oil from its Las Flores Processing Facility to pump stations in Santa Maria and Kern County.
ExxonMobil went before the supervisors in March 2022, calling this project a temporary solution while the company worked to complete reconstruction of pipelines 901 and 903—which caused the 2015 Gaviota Coast spill. Trucking would have occurred seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and transported 11,200 barrels per day along highways 101 and 166.
After supervisors voted to deny the project based on the potential impacts of oil spills, fatal accidents, and fire hazards, ExxonMobil sued the county in May 2022, stating that the decision violated its U.S. Constitutional rights to private property and use (Fifth and 14th Amendments), and sought reversal of the denial.
“The parties do not dispute that Exxon has a vested right to operate the [Santa Ynez Unit] facilities to extract oil and transport it via pipeline per its 1987 permit, but the court does not consider that vested right to encompass its modified interim trucking plan in light of the permissive language in the county’s policies, plans, and ordinances,” the ruling stated.
The first part of the lawsuit focused on whether or not the county’s decision was reasonable and based on evidence, said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC)—which was allowed to help legally defend Santa Barbara County.
“The question before the court is not what the judge would do; the question was did the supervisors make a rational, supported decision?” Krop said. “The court ruled that the county had the ability to deny the project and Exxon did not have the right to tanker oil.”
According to the judge’s ruling, ExxonMobil claimed that the denial wasn’t supported by substantial evidence and that supervisors “abused” their discretion, but the judge found that “the record is replete” with statistics, figures, and measurements that quantify the project’s impacts in addition to several public comment letters citing concerns about tanker truck accidents and potential oil spills.
“These are all legitimate reasons for the board to conclude it could not make the requisite finding even though the modified plan ostensibly would not exceed any safety or capacity thresholds,” the ruling stated. “None of the law cited by Exxon requires the board to approve oil trucking if the conditions are met, only that the enumerated conditions are necessary to approval of such a plan.”
Krop said that the court’s ruling is validating for the county and the more than 200 residents who participated in the public hearings.
“In terms of public processes, it was the most engaged I’ve seen the public in a very long time. They were very concerned—whether it was the environment or public safety—and the board of supervisors heard them and the judge has heard their concerns as well,” she said.
Moving forward, the court will look at Exxon’s claims of federal constitutional rights violations, and the parties have until Oct. 27 to submit a status report on how they would like to see the case play out, Krop said.
“We will say there’s no remaining issues to be heard by the court and the case should be dismissed,” she said. “The court ruled the county had the ability to deny the project and Exxon did not have the right to tanker, so that should dismantle any of [its] other claims.”
ExxonMobil Corporate Media Relations Advisor Michelle Gray told the Sun via email that Exxon is reviewing the court’s ruling and its recognition “that we have a right to operate our existing facilities and affiliated pipelines” in the county and is evaluating next steps.
Kelsey Buttitta, Santa Barbara County’s public information officer, said via email that the county is pleased with the judge’s decision.
“We are thankful that providing rational reasons for each denial vote, supported by evidence in the record, allowed the judge to come to her decision,” Buttitta said.