When it comes to oil production, the county supervisors tend to disagree over the pros and cons. But perhaps since experiencing collective oil spill fatigue in the two months since the Refugio Oil Spill, they have all appeared to yearn for answers. “This is like a jigsaw puzzle,” Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes Gaviota, said. “We may know some of the pieces that are missing, but we don’t know what they look like.”
The condition of the entire underground pipeline — Lines 901 and 903 — operated by the now notorious Plains All American Pipeline remains in question because the section of ruptured pipeline was so severely corroded. Whether or not the corrosion is related to outside conditions, Planning and Development staffer Matt Young said, is unclear because the root-cause analysis is not complete.
Young reminded the supervisors the county has no direct authority over the line; the county department can just make recommendations to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency responsible for regulating the pipeline that transmits oil from the Las Flores Facility to a refinery in Santa Maria or Nipomo. Young added the federal and state agency has been respectful of the county’s input.
Also unclear were the results of recent sampling of tar balls collected on the shoreline just two weeks ago. Of 44 samples collected from the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), just one sample matched oil leaked from the spill. “Where is it coming from if it’s not from Line 901?” asked Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. If it is not from natural seeps, Lavagino went on, “we have a bigger problem we don’t know about.”
Dianne Black, Planning and Development assistant director, said this round of “fingerprint analysis” did not compare samples collected to natural seepage. The Coast Guard and Plains All American Pipeline also conducted samples, Black said, but they have not seen those results. Last month, Plains released some results from previous tests that showed oil from Line 901 traveled as far south as Manhattan Beach.
But the good news in the realm of oil, county staff told the county supervisors in a separate hearing, is that the total oil spilled has trended down in the past few years. The amount of petroleum leaked decreased from 896 barrels in 2011 to 63 barrels in 2014. The Refugio Oil Spill, according to Plains All American Pipeline, released an estimated 2,400 barrels of crude oil; about 500 barrels is believed to have washed into the sea. Environmentalists charged that figure is questionable because it came from Plains — not a third party.
The number of violations county staff issues to operators decreased from 88 in 2010 to 11 in 2014. Oil companies that do not comply with requirements levied by the county receive fines. In the last five years, just three fines were imposed on producers — two against Greka Oil & Gas, Inc. in 2010 and one against Kore Emergency LLC in 2012.
Several years ago, Greka Oil & Gas came under fire after its operations had 21 separate spills in a five-year period. In 2008, the county supervisors tightened restrictions for repeat spill offenders; a company that had two separate spills of more than 15 barrels each outside of containment at two separate facilities in a year were slapped with the label “high risk operators.”
Currently, 23 producers operate more than 2,450 active wells and 125 onshore oil and gas facilities. Most are scattered through North County. Supervisor Lavagnino, who represents the 5th district, noted the oil industry “stepped up” after the county strengthened the ordinance. “You’d think the more inspections, more violations,” he noted, but that has not been the case.
Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, lauded the county for protecting the community, pointing to the denial of ExxonMobil’s emergency permit to truck oil 70 miles on Highway 101. She also called for the county to assert authority and make sure its mitigation measures at Gaviota beaches are appropriate.
Last week, the Refugio beaches were reopened; 186 personnel are still involved in the cleanup effort, according to a Unified Command spokesperson.