CAUTIONARY TALE: Planning Commissioners hope to avoid more tanker-truck oil spills like this one off State Route 166 last year. | Credit: Capt. Daniel Bertucelli/SBCFD

Santa Barbara County’s Planning Commission may have effectively pulled the plug on offshore oil development in South Coast waters for the foreseeable future this past week, rejecting a bid by ExxonMobil to truck oil initially pumped off the coast of Gaviota and processed at its Las Flores Canyon until stretches of two pipelines — deemed unsafe after the 2015 pipeline rupture by Refugio Canyon — can be replaced. 

The Planning Commission voted 3-2 that the increased risk of oil spills from tanker-trucking — particularly to nearby creeks and streams — so outweighed any potential benefits that they could not make the legally required “findings of overriding consideration” needed to approve the project, given the Class I negative environmental impact associated with the proposal. Class I impacts are defined as those that cannot be mitigated, and findings of overriding consideration must be made for such projects to be approved.

In a letter, ExxonMobil decried the vote as “a prejudicial abuse of discretion,” contending that the commissioners gave undue weight to the comments of “a few non-expert witnesses” about the probability of “aggressive drivers” who might pass oil-laden trucks carrying the company’s cargo along steep, narrow, and winding stretches of Highway 166 on their way from Las Flores Canyon to the Pentland processing plant in the San Joaquin Valley. 

ExxonMobil likewise claimed that the commissioners ignored “voluminous” evidence contained in the environmental impact report and in the county energy staff’s recommendation — in favor of the project — that the oil could be trucked safely. (If the proposal were so dangerous, ExxonMobil asked, why didn’t Caltrans oppose the project?)

Instead, the commissioners argued that the amount of oil to be made available to the commercial market if trucking were to be allowed was negligible — “de minimis” was the precise term used — given the enormity of existing supply and demand. Likewise, the commissioners found the evidence ExxonMobil provided regarding new jobs did not support the conclusions drawn. 

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Mostly, the commissioners expressed concern about the 78 additional truck trips a day that ExxonMobil is proposing on roads that are already prone to a high number of accidents. Opponents of the proposal cite the 258 truck accidents that took place along the 140-mile journey ExxonMobil is proposing over the past 20 years. In the last nine years, nine of those accidents involved oil trucks; five people were killed; 13,300 gallons of oil were spilled; and, of that, 4,500 gallons were spilled into the Cuyama River.

For environmentalists, the trucking fight is a line in the sand, drawn as the climate crisis achieves a greater sense of international urgency against a company that’s spent millions denying the existence of climate change even as its own scientists produced stark evidence to the contrary.

For ExxonMobil, however, a denial of the trucking permits would effectively shut down its Las Flores operations — which traditionally has processed oil from three offshore platforms — until there’s a new pipeline approved and installed in the wake of the Plains All American Pipeline disaster of 2015, in which more than 100,000 gallons of crude went into the ocean near Refugio State Beach. By reducing the frequency of truck trips, especially when rain is forecast, risks can be significantly reduced, ExxonMobil has insisted. 

The Planning Commission vote does not have the force of law. It constitutes a recommendation. Should the County Supervisors adopt it in a vote slated to occur sometime this coming February, ExxonMobil made it clear legal action would swiftly follow. Such an action, the company warned, would constitute “a prejudicial abuse of discretion.”

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