Dianne Black, assistant director of Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development department, granted ExxonMobil an emergency permit to truck nearly 18 million gallons of oil along Highway 101 during the next six months.
The viscous crude has been sitting idle in two large storage tanks at Las Flores Canyon since the Refugio Oil Spill last May; Exxon had relied on the ruptured Line 901, which is operated by Plains All American Pipeline and remains shut down, to move the oil. The temporary permit, submitted January 5, allows the oil company to dispatch up to 30 trucks — each holding 6,300 gallons of oil — per day from Las Flores to facilities in Santa Maria and Kern County.
In her decision, Black — who assumed authorizing power after Planning and Development Director Glenn Russell recused himself because he used to own stocks in ExxonMobil — reasoned that Exxon might not be able to safely empty its storage tanks if they failed during a natural disaster. To empty the tanks by truck will take up to six months; it would take three to four days if Line 901 were operating. The oil currently reaches a height of 36 feet in each tank; during normal operations, the height level is 10 feet.
Differing from a handful of environmentalists who opposed the decision, Environmental Defense Center Chief Counsel Linda Krop said she supported the emergency permit because the risks associated with keeping the tanks filled with crude are greater than the risks of trucking it. “This is purely a safety measure,” she said, not an authorization to resume oil production.
Last June, Black denied Exxon’s application proposing up to 192 trucks per day indefinitely in order to allow for production to commence. Environmental groups had all but threatened to sue if she approved it. (Exxon claimed at the time its natural gas production that supplies Santa Barbara County qualified as an essential public service and that its tax revenues were crucial to county coffers.)
In December, Line 903 — connected to the ruptured Line 901 — was purged of its idle oil. During that purge, Exxon emptied its pipelines that extend from the offshore platforms beneath the ocean floor to Las Flores Canyon.
Federal regulators with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have yet to indicate when Line 901 can restart.