Pacific Pipeline appeals county Planning Commission’s denial of safety valve proposal 

File photo courtesy of Santa Barbara County
ANOTHER APPEAL: Pacific Pipeline Company appealed the Santa Barbara Planning Commission vote to deny a project to install 16 new safety valves on the pipeline that caused the Gaviota Coast oil spill in 2015.

A project to install safety valves on the pipeline that caused the 2015 Refugio oil spill will make its way to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors after Pacific Pipeline Company filed an appeal to a recent Planning Commission decision. 

County planning staff initially approved the project in August 2022, giving previous pipeline owner Plains Pipeline L.P. the go-ahead to install 16 new safety valves on pipelines 901 and 903. The pipes run from the Gaviota Coast to the Los Padres National Forest, and Plains said the project would help it comply with a state mandate (AB 864) requiring oil operators to install the best available technology on pipelines in the coastal zone, according to previous Sun reporting

The Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Tautrim family, and Grey Fox LLC appealed that decision in September due to concerns about the pipeline restarting. During its March 1 hearing, the Planning Commission directed staff to find other options for further environmental review. However, during the follow-up hearing on April 26, commissioners voted to uphold the appeal, citing health and safety concerns, Gaviota Coast viewshed obstruction, and outdated permits from the 1980s.

On May 8, the Pacific Pipeline Company, a subsidary of ExxonMobil, appealed that decision, stating that it is inconsistent with county zoning ordinances and violates state law requirements. 

“Although the Planning Commission acknowledged that the severity of a potential future oil spill would be minimized through installation of the proposed [16] new valves, it speculated, without any evidence in the record, that oil spills ‘may still occur’ as a result of the upgrade project,” the appeal documents stated. “Such speculative conclusions … [were] in error and constitute an abuse of discretion.”

Ana Citrin, an attorney representing the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, told the Sun that she was very pleased with the Planning Commission’s vote and hopes that the Board of Supervisors will uphold the decision. 

“When confronting a multi-billion-dollar corporation, I think there’s always concerns that they will take some maneuver to try and change things in their favor,” Citrin said. “But I think that what we’ve seen is there’s strong leadership on the Board of Supervisors and concern about the impacts of oil and gas development.” 

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission echoed those concerns during the April 26 commission meeting. While Commissioners Larry Ferini (4th District) and Vincent Martinez (5th District) said the project itself only looked at valve replacements, not restarting operations, 3rd District Commissioner John Parke said that they should be looking at the project’s big picture and its impacts.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility, and I don’t want to make a flip decision and say this is nothing but a valve replacement. I have to think about the consequences, and one of the consequences of many that should be considered in a public debate with what happens with a restart,” Parke said.

The Planning Commission ultimately voted 3-2 (with Ferini and Martinez dissenting) to uphold the appeal and deny the project. Julie King, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil told the Sun in a statement that they disagree with the Planning Commission’s decision, and that “all criteria have been met to uphold the zoning administrator’s decision to approve the safety valve installations.”

—Taylor O’Connor