In the latest chapter of one of Santa Barbara County’s most hotly contested issues — ExxonMobil’s bid to transport truckloads of crude oil from its Las Flores Canyon processing facility to a pump station in Santa Maria and a terminal in Kern County as part of plans to restart three drilling platforms off the Central Coast — the County Planning Commission denied the project in an initial 3-2 vote.
Commissioners Laura Bridley, John Parke, and Vice-Chair Michael Cooney voted for the denial, with Commissioner Daniel Blough and Chair Larry Ferini opposed, which came unexpectedly on the first day of two hearings scheduled for September 29 and October 1; the second hearing has been canceled, and the issue is set to come across the commission again in November for a formal vote recommending the Board of Supervisors deny the project as well.
A coalition of at least 35 groups joined in opposition to the project, including the Environmental Defense Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, the UCSB Environmental Affairs Board, and the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. The groups worry that Highway 166 is not prepared to safely handle the 24,800 oil-filled truck trips per year ExxonMobil is proposing to transport, and they oppose the reopening of three offshore platforms that have lain dormant since Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 ruptured and spilled thousands of gallons of oil along the coast near Refugio State Beach in 2015.
The Planning Commission’s vote to deny the project comes after county energy planning staff earlier this month recommended the commission approve it. County energy planners estimate it could take up to seven years before the stretch of corroded pipeline can be replaced, and they and ExxonMobil concluded trucking is the only viable option.
“Our community spoke loud and clear against this project, and the commission did the right thing in recommending denial of ExxonMobil’s application to restart its offshore platforms and truck its oil along dangerous and scenic county highways,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center. “The risk to our climate, the Santa Barbara Channel, and the safety of our communities justifies denial. We look forward to working with the county as we transition to a clean-energy future.”
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The latest supplemental environmental impact report found several significant red flags that would impact wildlife and the environment in the event of an oil spill from one of the tankers.
According to California Highway Patrol, there were 258 trucking accidents along the route from 2015 to 2021, resulting in 10 deaths and 110 injuries. In another incident in March 2020, another tanker truck crashed off Highway 166, spilling more than 4,500 gallons of oil into the Cuyama River.
These incidents, and the potential impacts of reopening three offshore drilling platforms, have been a focal point for the groups opposing the project. In a poll conducted in November 2019, the coalition stated in a letter to the commission, nearly three-fourths of county residents were concerned that the project would create problems on the highway.
Commissioner Parke emphasized the importance of communicating not only the result of the vote to the Board of Supervisors but also the specific findings that led to the recommendation for denial.
“This is a communication from the Planning Commission to the board,” said Parke. “I don’t get to go to the board and argue what we did. I want to make sure that they got the message, and that’s why I want it in the findings.”
At its November 3 meeting, the commission will review new documents on the administrative and overriding concerns raised in the denial, and the matter will be sent to the supervisors with a recommendation to deny the project.