Pipeline proposal raises concerns about resuming oil operations

After six hours of debate, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission decided it needed more information before making a decision on a plan to update the Plains All American Pipeline that caused the Refugio oil spill in 2015.

click to enlarge Pipeline proposal raises concerns about resuming oil operations
ANOTHER PROJECT : The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission heard a Plains All American Pipeline proposal to install 16 new safety valves along the same pipeline that ruptured during the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill, and environmental groups are concerned the company is attempting to resume oil operations.

Plains Pipeline L.P. proposed installing 16 new safety valves along the existing pipeline system that hasn’t operated since the spill, which released 123,000 gallons of crude oil. The pipe runs from the Gaviota Coast to the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County, Planner Katie Nall told the Planning Commission during its March 1 meeting. 

The company said it proposed this project in order to comply with California Assembly Bill 864, which mandates oil operators to install the best available technology on existing pipelines in the coastal zone, according to county staff’s presentation. Some public commenters, however, felt that approving the project would be a step toward restarting oil operations at the Santa Ynez Unit, which ExxonMobil recently sold.

“The existing pipeline system is unsafe to operate due to the way it is constructed and Plain’s failure to maintain it,” Sierra Club Santa Barbara-Ventura Chapter Chair Katie Davis said in a public comment letter. “At the criminal sentencing hearing after Plains was convicted for criminal negligence, the prosecutor tried to prohibit Plains from restarting or even threatening to restart this pipeline.”

She requested the board grant the appeal, as Exxon doesn’t need shutoff valves if the pipeline isn’t in operation and it should be decommissioned instead. 

Staff approved the valve proposal in August 2022, according to the staff report. The Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Tautrim family, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, and Greyfox LLC appealed that decision in September due to restart concerns. Appelants requested further environmental review for the project since the 2015 oil spill occurred and pipeline conditions have changed since the pipeline’s original environmental review from 1985, said Ana Citrin, an attorney representing the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.

“The pipeline that was evaluated in the 1985 environmental impact report was described as having a fully functioning liner system to protect against external corrosion,” Citrin said during public comment on March 1. “Since the Refugio oil spill, the liner system is ineffective and the liner is causing external corrosion.” 

Without updating the entire pipeline, there is still risk of crude oil spills within “environmentally and culturally sensitive areas,” she said. 

Plains argued that the question of whether operations would resume wasn’t the issue in front of commissioners. Attorney Brian Carlin—who said he represented Pacific Pipeline Company, which purchased the pipeline in October 2022—told commissioners that Plains was only looking to stay in compliance with AB 864, and for the pipeline to be considered an active line and not decommissioned. 

“Denying appeals for installation is a vote for compliance of AB 864, [which] by no means authorizes the restart of these pipelines,” Carlin said. 

If the company wanted to resume operations, it would require further analysis and a restart plan to lay out all the steps and parties involved, he said, adding that installing new safety valves doesn’t trigger additional environmental review.

“We believe we would be out of compliance if we didn’t do anything. This is about compliance,” Carlin said. “The pipelines are holding pressure, [but] this is not a vote for restart.”

The proposal follows the county’s denial of ExxonMobil’s proposal to truck crude oil along Highways 101 and 166 from its the Santa Ynez Unit’s Las Flores Canyon processing facility to the Santa Maria Pump Station or to the Plains Pentland Terminal in Kern County. Exxon recently sold the Santa Ynez Unit’s offshore and onshore operations to Sable Offshore Corporation for $643 million—with the goal of restarting operations by 2024 outlined in a presentation Sable gave to investors.

Staff proposed to deny the appeal, but the commissioners were divided between denying the appeal and investigating the issue further. Fifth District Commissioner Vincent Martinez said he saw the matter before them as the installation of the valves only. 

“From looking at AB 864, it directly originated from the spill in 2015 … to lessen the risk of oil spills. This is our legislative body acting on this provision,” Martinez said. “Addressing this pipeline as a whole beyond the valves being addressed here today [is] a whole different animal.” 

For 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney, it was important to consider this project from all sides and look at the bigger picture of future oil pumping along the coast.

“We would be doing a disservice to our constituents who have appreciated our coastline to not deal further with these issues that have been raised,” Cooney said. “The valve project is an end run of starting up another pipeline on the Gaviota Coast.”

The item was continued to the April 26 meeting, where staff will return with options for further environmental review.

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