Pipeline takeover

ExxonMobil-affiliated companies take ownership of the Plains oil pipeline, environmentalists concerned for future

File photo courtesy of Julie King
NEW OWNERS: The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission approved an ownership transfer for pipelines 901 and 903 from Plains Pipeline to Pacific Pipeline Company—a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. The pipeline runs from ExxonMobil’s offshore oil platforms on the Gaviota Coast to the Las Flores Processing Facility south of Gaviota, then to the Santa Ynez facility (pictured) and on to a Kern County facility.

When it comes to anything oil-related, Santa Barbara County is split between North and South County lines—with North County typically in favor of oil and South County against. 

The pattern persisted during the ExxonMobil trucking debate at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in March 2022 and again recently when the Planning Commission voted to uphold appeals and deny a valve replacement project on the oil pipelines that caused the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill. 

However, during the June 14 Planning Commission meeting, 2nd District Commissioner Laura Bridley voted with North County commissioners to approve an ownership change for the same pipelines from Plains Pipeline L.P. to ExxonMobil. 

“I’m sure a lot of people were disappointed in my vote,” Bridley told the Sun. “This decision was fairly perfunctory. This was just a request for Plains All American Company [Plains Pipeline L.P.] to transfer the asset to ExxonMobil.” 

ExxonMobil’s proposal came in three parts: a change of ownership from Plains to Pacific Pipeline Company, a change in financial guarantor to ExxonMobil Corporation, and a change of operator to ExxonMobil Pipeline Company. All companies fall under the umbrella of ExxonMobil Corporation. 

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, and private attorneys pushed against the ownership change, arguing that the pipeline’s current corroded conditions violate county permit conditions that require a corrosion protection system to be in place before any ownership change can occur. 

“When the pipeline was approved, there was a permit that required a cathodic protection system that would prevent corrosion; that was a permit condition and they are clearly not in compliance with that,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the EDC.  

Krop added that she understands there will be a new process to restart oil operations, but it’s “an issue in the context” because Pacific Pipeline Company has indicated interest in restarting the line, but Commissioner Bridley said during the meeting that she had a hard time “going down the rabbit hole” of denying approval out of fear of restarting. 

“This is a business transaction, I don’t see this as restarting the line. That’s the time when we can look at more critically updating conditions,” Bridley said. “This isn’t about starting the line and as much as opponents today want to extend the logic … a lot of things have to happen before the lines will start.” 

The Planning Commission voted to approve the ownership change 3-1, with 3rd District Commissioner John Parke dissenting and 1st District Commissioner C. Michael Cooney absent. Now, the Environmental Defense Center will file an appeal to the Board of Supervisors on behalf of its clients Get Oil Out and the Santa Barbara County Action Network. 

“We feel … that the vote was inconsistent with the previous vote, because previously the Planning Commission said that even though there are new valves, there still is corrosion on the pipeline and it wouldn’t necessarily protect from a spill,” Krop said. “The existing permit conditions say that the pipeline has to be protected from corrosion, we don’t know why Commissioner Bridley changed her vote.” 

This is ExxonMobil’s third time before the Planning Commission in four months—with its first two appearances regarding appeals on its proposal to install 16 safety valves on pipelines 901 and 903. 

The Planning Commission ultimately upheld the appeals and denied the project, citing health and safety concerns. ExxonMobil appealed this decision, and it’s set to go before the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 22. Bridley said she also struggled with that decision but voted to uphold the appeal because that was closer to the potential of a restart, she said. 

Dawn Sestito, an attorney representing ExxonMobil and its affiliated companies, told the commissioners that Plains Pipeline L.P. has taken corrective action since the 2015 spill through a consent decree and has met all state and federal requirements. 

Currently there are stations installed every 10 miles to test the cathodic protection system—with 140 test stations total—and the system is tested every six months, she said. Approving the transfer would put the pipeline under a corporation that has the financial and technology resources to comply with county regulations and take any corrective action if there ever was a spill, she added. 

“Not one single public comment has identified any outstanding audit findings, permit violations, or violations of county ordinances, and that’s because there are none,” Sestito said. “To the extent that there are concerns about the cathodic protection system is not effective because of the 2015 spill: That spill was fully investigated by responsible agencies, and those findings were taken into account within the consent decree.” 

Approving a permit transfer is not approval of restart, she added. It’s governed by the consent decree and ExxonMobil will have to go through the California Office of the State Fire Marshal to get restart approval.

“The purpose here is to look at these conditions, see if they’ve been met and if we are compliant with the law,” Sestito said. “I went through every single requirement and they’ve been met.” 

Fourth District Planning Commissioner Larry Ferini agreed with Bridley, saying this was a business decision.

“This isn’t to restart a pipeline; this is to get a very strong company in place who has the financial wherewithal to check, double check, to fix, double fix, to make sure everything is done to the best of their human capacity,” Ferini said. “I would say with the technology they have in place and pride of ownership, it will go beyond human capacity.” 

Parke, the 3rd District commissioner, said he “had a bit more of a complicated point of view” with this project. From a big-picture point of view, he said it made sense to him to transfer the pipeline from Plains to ExxonMobil because of Exxon’s ample resources. 

“But in all good conscience I have to look at the findings and see that I can make them, and the one that’s troubling me is finding … compliance with existing requirements,” Parke said. “It says that as of date the application is deemed complete, the current owners are in compliance with all requirements of the permit.” 

The pipeline hasn’t been used or worked in a long time, Parke said, and the 2015 spill happened because it wasn’t maintained appropriately.

“But we still make a finding that it’s in compliance as Plains is with all requirements within the permit, including the cathodic protection system. That’s just odd to me,” Parke said. 

Instead of denying the project, Parke proposed creating an agreement between the county Planning and Development director and ExxonMobil that lays out what needs to be done in order to improve pipeline conditions. However, the other commissioners moved forward to approve the transfer. 

“Pacific Pipeline Company has taken on responsibility for maintaining and inspecting the Las Flores Pipeline system and is recognized as the sole owner by the state and federal regulators responsible for oversight of pipeline safety,” ExxonMobil representatives told the Sun in an email. “They are conducting a thorough inspection of the pipelines and assessing next steps.”

EDC Chief Counsel Krop said that she wished the Planning Commission would have supported Parke’s proposal because it would have further demonstrated ExxonMobil’s plan to prevent oil spills.

“That goes to the part of the county code: If you aren’t going to find compliance, you need an agreement with how you are going to be in compliance,” Krop said. “It’s definitely more than just a business decision. … It is transferring the pipeline that is completely corroded and creating a risk.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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