ExxonMobil’s plans to truck oil out of its Las Flores facility along the Gaviota Coast hit a major roadblock this week with the release of an environmental impact report finding that the risk of spills caused by trucking accidents qualifies as a Class I environmental impact, no matter what safeguards and mitigations are imposed.
Legally and politically, this means the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors would have to make findings of “overriding considerations” to allow ExxonMobil to begin trucking up to 70 truckloads of oil a day to move forward. Given acute concern about the impacts of climate change and the current political tilt of the county supervisors, it would appear ExxonMobil faces an uphill struggle.
According to the environmental impact report, released late Monday, the risk of oil spills can be reduced but not eliminated or avoided altogether. The report concluded, “An offsite accidental spill of crude from a truck accident has the potential to impact sensitive … biological, cultural, and water resources.”
Given that a typical truckload of crude contains 160 barrels of oil — 6,720 gallons — the maximum size of a spill in the event of an accident is 11,000 square feet. Such a spill, the report estimated, would likely travel no more than 500 feet from the roadway. But given seasonal timing and proximity to adjacent creek beds, such spills could find themselves in waterways traveling considerably farther downstream, thus “increasing the severity of the impacts to sensitive resources and increasing the affected area associated with the cleanup.”
The report also concluded that the chances of this happening, however, were relatively small. ExxonMobil is now contemplating two destination sites for its Las Flores Canyon oil — one in Santa Maria and one 140 miles away along the steep and windy Highway 166 in Kern County. According to the report, the chances of a spill greater than five gallons occurring was once every 17 years for oil destined for Pentland Terminal in Kern County; for the Santa Maria facility — scheduled to be shut down in 2023 — the odds were calculated to be no more than once every 52 years. Those numbers could be reduced by 33 percent, the report concluded, if ExxonMobil were required to abide by certain safety precautions and reduce trucking runs when rain was predicted.
Linda Krop with the Environmental Defense Center countered that the odds were actually far worse, the risk of collision greater, and the consequences more dire. The EDC and the Center for Biological Diversity are at the forefront of a sprawling environmental coalition committed to fighting this proposal. In the past 20 years, they claim, there have been 258 truck incidents along the proposed route from ExxonMobil’s Gaviota facility to Kern County. In those, 110 people sustained injuries; 10 died. Of those accidents, six involved oil delivery trucks. Those happened in the past nine years. In those, five people died, one was injured, and 13,300 gallons of oil were spilled. Of that, 4,500 gallons made their way into the Cuyama River.
Whatever cautionary measures truck drivers take in terms of safety equipment and training, Krop noted, the risk of collision caused by a third party remains very real. The northbound lanes of Highway 101 were blocked for 19 hours during the height of the Thomas Fire when many people sought to flee the South Coast, she noted, after a car crashed into an oil tanker, causing it to jackknife across the freeway. In that case, no oil got into nearby creeks.
The county’s Planning Commission will first wrangle with the results of this report and their implications in hearings scheduled for September 29 and October 1. Whatever verdict the commissioners render will no doubt be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
One issue they will have to resolve — even more foundational than the relative risk posed by truck accidents and the relative benefits offered by additional tax revenues and jobs ($8.68 million in property taxes over seven years and 250 jobs) — is whether trucking is even allowed under the terms of ExxonMobil’s initial county permits. According to county staff, ExxonMobil is allowed to transport its oil by means other than pipeline if there is no pipeline available. In fact, the county issued ExxonMobil a temporary permit to haul off 400,000 barrels of oil — then sitting in storage tanks at Las Flores Canyon — in the wake of the 2015 rupture of Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901, which caused the 142,000-gallon Refugio Oil Spill. According to county energy planner Errin Briggs, 2,500 truckloads of oil were removed from the site “safely and without incidents.”
Krop, however, insists otherwise. The original permits — issued in 1986 — were predicated on Exxon transporting its oil by pipeline, she insisted. Exceptions to that were subsequently allowed, but those exceptions, Krop noted, expired in 1994. Krop was personally involved in efforts — both legal and political — to limit offshore oil development at the time. “I was there,” she said. “I remember.”
ExxonMobil, like all the major oil operations along the Gaviota Coast, was effectively shut down by the Plains All American oil pipeline spill of 2015, caused by a history of corrosion and neglect that deemed by a Santa Barbara jury to be criminal in scope. Efforts to reengineer that pipeline have been slow-moving in the extreme; a draft environmental report is not expected out until sometime this fall. Given the pace at which the regulatory process moves — and the intensity of opposition — it could be many years, if ever, before that pipeline is once again operational.