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Plains Pipeline Tries to Dodge Felony Conviction for 2015 Oil Spill

Oil Industry Tries to Insinuate Self Back into Santa Barbara’s Good Books

Oil collects along the coastline just north of Refugio State Beach
Paul Wellman

You can’t blame an oil company for trying. Still, you have to wonder what the hell they were thinking. The “they” to whom I refer are the attorneys for Plains Pipeline Company, who last week argued before Judge James Herman. They wanted him to set aside the one felony conviction rendered by Santa Barbara jurors for Plains’ criminal lack of awareness, preparation, and response to the pipeline rupture and oil spill that happened along the Refugio coastline in 2015. They argued that Plains had met or exceeded all industry standards for its emergency response plans.

The jury had concluded that Plains knew or should have known it was about to dump 142,800 gallons of crude oil into the ocean at the time of the spill. That constituted, in the jurors’ minds, felonious ignorance. By the time of the spill, the wall of the pipeline had become tissue-paper-thin: 89 percent corroded. And when the oil hit the fan, what evidence was there of any emergency response plan?

By law, Plains was required to notify federal authorities within the hour of oil hitting the water. Company officials insisted the real limit was two hours, not one. And that, they argued, was merely a guideline, not a requirement. In either case, it took Plains an hour and a half to even figure out that there was oil on the ocean, and then another 89 minutes after that before Plains notified the feds. So much for the best-laid plans.

Kathy Randall, senior Plains administrator at the scene of the spill, never got around to notifying state or federal emergency officials at all; another Plains employee did that. If not for the urging of county emergency planner Elsa Arndt, Randall would have never notified Clean Seas, the cleanup crew kept on alert by the oil industry for just such contingencies. When Arndt later checked with Randall to make sure she had made the call, Randall told Arndt she tried, but that she had the wrong number. Arndt quickly gave Randall the correct number, and Randall finally notified Clean Seas to start work.

The flawless execution of the best-laid plans.

When Plains conducted emergency oil-spill response drills in 2009 and in 2012, the company conspicuously never invited county emergency response personnel or representatives from the county fire department. Instead, Plains invited representatives from the Santa Maria Fire Department, the agency furthest away from the disaster site. County agencies found out about the drills only after they’d taken place.

I am told Judge Herman issued a 20-page tentative ruling telling Plains’ attorneys to pound sand. In person, I am told, the judge said he’d take some of their points under consideration. In the meantime, Plains is scheduled to be sentenced April 25, a date that will no doubt live in infamy.

I mention all this not to rattle the bones of skeletons recently buried, but because all this just happened. That Plains would pursue such an action as Santa Barbara approaches the 50th anniversary of its late, great oil spill speaks volumes about Plains’ sense of timing.

Plains won’t be the first local oil company forced to eat criminal charges. It will, however, be the first to eat a felony. And there’s not enough mustard and mayonnaise on the planet to make a felony sandwich go down easy for a company like Plains.

Unocal ​— ​a k a Union Oil ​— ​was forced to plead no contest to three criminal charges in 1994 for an underground oil spill by the Guadalupe Dunes in which at least 18 million gallons of diluent ​— ​an oil thinner used to dilute oil otherwise so viscous it can’t be pumped or transported ​— ​were allowed to spill underneath a 2,700-acre spread of oil patch by Avila Beach. Those charges, however, were only misdemeanors, and far fewer, by the way, than the 33 first proposed. Unocal also agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine. The leak, it turned out, had been taking place for about 40 years. Surfers discovered it when they noticed the water tasted weird. It proved so big that Unocal was forced to spend $43 million on remediation efforts. Then it was sold to Chevron, which has spent even more. The work is still not finished. When Unocal pleaded no contest, company spokespersons denied engaging in a cover-up. They just never got around to reporting it.

I mention Unocal and the Guadalupe Dunes because Unocal was the company responsible for the ’69 spill. I mention the dunes because one of the three companies now pushing major onshore oil development projects outside Santa Maria ​— ​ERG ​— ​is seeking to sweeten what otherwise might seem like a sour deal by offering to fluff the Guadalupe Dunes as a visitor attraction site. No doubt the spirit of this offer is totally sincere. But as a famous smart-ass once noted, a little sincerity is a dangerous thing and any more can be fatal. ERG is one of three oil proposals that would increase the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 700,000 metric tons a year.

That’s a big number. For Santa Barbara, it’s huge. When considering these proposals, the county supervisors will have to weigh new evidence indicating that the rate of sea-level rise is happening faster than even the worst doom-’n’-gloomers suspected. Two weeks ago, the journal Science reported the rate of ocean warming has been accelerating and is now 40 percent faster than scientists previously believed. Each of the last three years can now boast being the hottest year of all time for the oceans. This week, the National Academy of Sciences published a report indicating that Greenland’s ice sheets are melting faster than the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz when water was poured on her. In 2012, the amount of ice melting in Greenland was four times higher than it was in 2003.

You can’t blame an oil company for asking. But you can certainly blame county-elected officials if they should say yes.


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