ExxonMobil is asking the county for an emergency permit to fast track the trucking of oil from Refugio to Nipomo. (The truck pictured is in North Dakota.)

On Thursday, ExxonMobil submitted an emergency application to truck oil out of a storage tank at Las Flores Canyon throughout the state pending the repair and restoration of Plains All American’s pipeline at Refugio. Within days, the county’s Planning and Development (P&D) director Glenn Russell is expected to grant or deny the application by determining if Exxon’s request constitutes an “emergency,” a decision that will be closely scrutinized by environmentalists.

According to county energy division director Kevin Drude, Exxon’s application proposes that up to eight trucks each hour — each carrying 5,000 gallons of oil — travel north on Highway 101 to Nipomo in San Luis Obispo 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. ExxonMobil’s total production capacity is 30,000 barrels per day. As of late, the oil company has reduced its production some to 8,500 barrels daily. At that rate, Exxon would exhaust its storage capacity at the Las Flores Canyon in 20 days, Drude said. (There are 42 gallons of oil in a barrel.)

Exactly how “emergency” is defined will be the decisive factor in whether or not the county grants the permit. “That’s the million-dollar question,” Drude said. There is a precise language in the zoning ordinance about emergency permits — if there’s a threat to public health or essential public services. That definition, Drude noted, is the same in the coastal zone as it is in the inland area. County energy staff and county counsel will help Russell make the decision.

Exxon’s argument in the application is that its facility is designed and engineered for a much higher production rate, Drude explained, and lowering that rate complicates the process and poses safety risks.

Should Russell deny the emergency application, Exxon could take the issue to court as there is no appeal process. Otherwise Exxon could go through the standard permit process, which would take months, if not longer.

Should Russell approve the emergency application, environmentalists will not be happy. Environmental Defense Center chief counsel Linda Krop said at a meeting Thursday with several groups concerned about the spill that everyone was “adamantly” opposed to trucking oil via an emergency permit. The standard process with full environmental analysis and review should be taken, Krop said. “We’re coming out of one disaster; we don’t want to walk into another.”

Of his upcoming decision, which is his alone to make, P&D’s Glenn Russell told The Santa Barbara Independent this week: “I’m thrilled, let me tell you.”

Already, Venoco and Freeport-McMoRan are shut down because they have filled their storage capacity. Last week, they approached county staff, indicating they would be submitting similar permits in the future. The two oil companies combined produce 8,000 barrels a day. Their applications would be processed through Goleta’s City Hall. As of Thursday afternoon, they had not done so, said Goleta spokesperson Valerie Kushnerov.


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