With Friends Like Oil Companies, ExxonMobil Needs No Enemies
Energy Giant and Santa Barbara Officials Set for Final Showdown over Trucking
By Nick Welsh
Thirty-five years ago, Exxon’s then-environmental manager, Don Cornett, infamously stormed out of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ chambers. “You can stick by your agreement,” he announced, “or you can stick it in your ear.”
Cornett was steamed past the boiling point because the supervisors had just voted — by a 3-to-2 margin — to impose stringent air quality controls on Exxon’s offshore emissions in exchange for approval of the company’s massive oil and gas processing plant then proposed for Las Flores Canyon along Gaviota’s bucolic coast.
Exxon wound up losing that fight, an epic environmental showdown waged long and hard throughout the shadowy hallways of power in the nation’s capital.
In its aftermath, Cornett would find himself reassigned to Alaska, where he would soon occupy the hot seat yet again, this time in response to the 11 million gallons of crude spilled in the remote Prince William Sound because the skipper of the Exxon Valdez — sleeping off a night of hard drinking — ran the tanker aground.
History appears poised to repeat itself. Santa Barbara and Exxon are approaching another “stick it in your ear” moment.
In a few short weeks, it’s extremely likely the Santa Barbara county supervisors will vote — again most likely by a margin of 3-to-2 — to deny Exxon’s (now ExxonMobil) request for a trucking permit to haul the oil pumped from its three offshore platforms to a processing facility located in Kern County. This past September 29, after an eight-hour public hearing, the county’s Planning Commission also voted to deny the request.
Without this permit, ExxonMobil — the biggest oil company on the planet — finds itself effectively shut down for the next seven years or indefinitely, whichever comes first. Right now, the latter appears more likely.
By any reckoning, this is a very big deal. By Santa Barbara standards, it doesn’t get much bigger.
No one would ever confuse ExxonMobil’s current asset manager, Bryan Anderson, with Don Cornett. He’s younger, he’s professional but informal, and he lives in Santa Ynez with his wife and two young kids.
In his response to the Planning Commission vote, Anderson was notably more measured than Cornett had been 35 years prior. But he was every bit as intense, scorching the commission’s decision as “a clear prejudicial abuse of discretion.” The commissioners, he charged, “completely ignored” the voluminous analysis provided by multiple experts who testified the project was safe. Instead, he complained, the commissioners denied the project “based solely on the unfounded comments of a few non-expert witnesses about the risks posed by the project.”
In a footnote at the bottom of his written remarks, Anderson indicated ExxonMobil intended to take the supervisors to court should they follow the Planning Commission’s lead. Nobody missed it.
At big issue now, as it was 35 years ago, is air quality. More precisely, it’s all about climate change. The combined new truck trips — 25,500 of them a year — are expected to generate 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year in exhaust fumes. That’s 10 times what the county’s action limit is.
But to turn on the steam generator that powers ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon facility will generate more than 30 times that amount. Back when the plant was operating at full tilt, Las Flores put out 317,000 metric tons a year. Depending on which source you rely upon, that’s 25-42 percent of the county’s total inventory for greenhouse gases. Either way, it constitutes the single largest stationary source in Santa Barbara.
These numbers are animating the environmental opposition — groups like Get Oil Out!, Santa Barbara County Action Network, the Society of Fearless Grandmothers, the Sierra Club, Los Padres Forest Watch, Citizens Planning Association, and the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, among many others. They express a life-or-death sense of urgency over the rising temperature of the earth where the past eight years qualify as the hottest in recorded human history. Now is precisely not the right time, they argue, to allow ExxonMobil to return to “normal.” As one activist demanded of the planning commissioners, “What kind of ancestors do you want to be?”
For these activists, there’s a special place in hell for ExxonMobil. Not only is it the biggest oil company out there, but its history in spending millions of dollars on campaigns challenging the link between climate change and human conduct has been well documented. New York State sued ExxonMobil on securities fraud two years ago, claiming the company intentionally misled investors about the severity of the climate-change problem, an issue confirmed by the company’s own scientists as early as the late 1970s. Other lawsuits by other states are in the works. In Santa Barbara, Professor Jim Powell, the husband of 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, wrote a book in 2009 in which he likened ExxonMobil’s campaign against climate science to that of the tobacco industry when it challenged the documented health perils of smoking.
On paper, however, the showdown with ExxonMobil is all about allowing the company to dispatch up to 78 tanker trucks a day laden with 6,000 gallons of oil up Highway 101 to Santa Maria and then east along Highway 166 — a two-lane highway famous for its steep inclines, hairpin turns, and impatient drivers — to the Pentland Terminal in Kern County. If approved, this would allow ExxonMobil to reactivate its Las Flores Canyon facilities and begin producing up to 11,200 barrels of oil a day.
The supervisorial deliberations two weeks from now promise a classic collision between the irresistible force and the immovable object. ExxonMobil — which undeniably, absolutely, and incontestably enjoys vested rights to continue operating its Las Flores Canyon facility — is clearly the former. But only so long as there’s a pipeline to move the company’s oil.
That pipeline went the way of the dodo bird on May 19, 2015, when a stretch of the Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 — which carried most of the oil produced off the coast of Santa Barbara — ruptured. That pipeline has yet to be replaced. Since then, ExxonMobil and every other producer off the coast have been effectively shut in and shut down.
If and when the pipeline ever is replaced remains the subject of considerable conjecture. County energy planners estimate the environmental review process will take another two years. At least. After that, there are land rights and easements to negotiate.
It’s undeniably the case that South Coast environmentalists have been trying to put the final nail in ExxonMobil’s coffin. But it’s equally the case that it was other oil companies who imperiled it.
First, there was Plains All American, convicted in a Santa Barbara courtroom of being criminally responsible for allowing the pipeline to rupture and its contents to spill into the ocean by Refugio Beach. But for that incident, ExxonMobil would still be producing, Venoco might not have declared bankruptcy, and Freeport-McMoRan might still be pumping away by Pt. Arguello.
Adding immensely to ExxonMobil’s suspended agitation was Phillips 66, which in August 2020 abruptly and dramatically announced that it would cease processing oil at its Rodeo refinery located outside San Francisco. That refinery was to be the ultimate alternate destination for Las Flores Canyon crude. With Phillips’s sudden decision, ExxonMobil found itself forced to quickly resort to plan B.
Professional traffic engineers hired to analyze the trucking project and those on the County of Santa Barbara’s payroll contend that Highway 166 is safe. Yes, they acknowledge, it has “a slightly higher accident rate” per million miles traveled than the state average — 0.82 rather than 0.7 — but this difference, they maintain, does not qualify as “significant.” According to their math, the net impact of ExxonMobil’s trucking plan will be just nine additional truck trips a day.
With mitigations and precautions — newer vehicles and technology, increased training in defensive driving, and prohibiting hauling when heavy rains are predicted — ExxonMobil insists this trucking operation will be one the safest and most regulated in the world. With such measures in place, these experts calculate the additional truck traffic would cause one tanker truck spill every 17 years.
The last indignity to be heaped upon ExxonMobil by a fellow member of the oil industry took place at 4:30 in the morning of March 20, 2020. An oil tanker driver named Jesse Villanueva was hauling 6,600 gallons of oil westbound on Highway 166 when he swerved hard enough to roll his truck. Forty-five hundred gallons of oil spilled out and into the nearby Cuyama River just upstream from Twitchell Reservoir, which provides drinking water to Santa Maria residents. The stretch of Highway 166 proposed for trucking by ExxonMobil happens to cross the Cuyama River seven times.
A team made up of firefighters, EPA employees, and Caltrans workers spent a day damming the river, successfully preventing the contaminated water from getting into the downstream reservoir. Santa Barbara’s District Attorney would later file five misdemeanor criminal charges against Villanueva for driving too fast down a skinny one-lane road. Ultimately, he would be fined $80,000.
When the supervisors grapple with this issue, they will no doubt hear much testimony about the safety of Highway 166. Like the planning commissioners, they will be forced to reconcile the perceived reality experienced by many Cuyama residents with the more sanguine mathematical calculations prepared by the traffic engineers.
Several residents told the planning commission how trucks would pass them on the road, crossing double yellow lines as they did so, sometimes in the face of blind curves. More often, it was the automobile drivers, frustrated by the deep lines of trucks ahead them, who risked pulling out into oncoming traffic in order to pass. There were not enough places for trucks to pull over and let motorists go by, the residents said. Those that did exist were typically muddy and full of gravel. Either way, they were not used.
County traffic engineer Will Robertson framed the issue differently. Highway 166 was safe enough if motorists obeyed the speed limit and followed all the rules, he said. The extent to which the road posed safety issues, he argued, was a function of driver behavior, not so much road design. But, he confessed, even he was especially careful when driving along Highway 166.
Planning Commissioner John Parke described the road as “dangerous” and “scary.” Parke said he has recently inspected many fledgling cannabis operations in the Cuyama Valley currently seeking county permits. Those operations, he stated, will need 400-500 employees. Most of those workers will have to come from Santa Maria, and they will have to drive to work along Highway 166. These numbers, Parke noted, were notably not included in the traffic engineers’ calculations of future traffic volumes.
Even the two North County commissioners who voted in favor of the project — Dan Blough and Larry Ferini — expressed concerns of their own about Highway 166. “Personally, if it’s raining, then I won’t use that road,” said Blough. “There are no pullover lanes, no turnouts for trucks,” he added.
Ferini, the commission’s uncommonly soft-spoken chair, was uncharacteristically blunt. “It’s kind of a horrible thing,” he said of driving on Highway 166. “I kind of resent doing it, the dangers of it.” Ferini said when driving that road, he makes a point to go no more than 55 miles an hour, keeping his blood pressure down and resigning himself to the fact that “it will take an hour to get over the hill.”
In addition, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), which represents three of the organizations fighting the trucking proposal, provided accident statistics that painted a more dire picture. As of the September hearing, the EDC found there had been 80 accidents throughout the state involving oil tanker trucks in the past 22 years. Of those, eight had occurred on ExxonMobil’s proposed route in the last decade.
On the fourth floor of the County Administration Building, there’s surprisingly little buzz about this impending confrontation. “It’s not a really good time,” said one supervisor about bringing a big oil project forward. “But when is it ever?” ExxonMobil has apparently not been lobbying the board or trying to sweeten the pot. One supervisor expressed surprise at the lack of activity, suggesting perhaps the company “is going out with a whimper instead of a bang.”
ExxonMobil, it should be noted, enjoys ardent support from some quarters. The collective chambers of commerce throughout the county have weighed in emphatically on the project’s behalf, citing the property taxes and high-paying jobs the company provides.
In the 10 years prior to the plant’s shutdown, ExxonMobil paid $45 million in taxes to Santa Barbara County. If the trucking proposal were to be approved, it’s estimated ExxonMobil would pay $8.6 million more over the seven-year lifespan for the project. In addition, it’s estimated that the project would create 30 temporary construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs that pay “head of household” wages.
The Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association has insisted the choice facing the decision makers is not between “oil or no oil,” but where our oil will come from. Oil produced in Santa Barbara is done so under the most environmentally rigorous safeguards, they argued; it is not shipped halfway across the world from Saudi Arabia in oil tankers that contribute far more greenhouse gases than even ExxonMobil’s reactivated plant. One third-generation oil worker told the planning commissioners that the testimony of all the oil bashers “makes me sort of sick to my stomach.” Another oil supporter likened them to “meat eaters who don’t want to live next to a slaughterhouse.”
Planning Commissioner Blough championed the environmental virtues of locally produced oil. He suggested the commission’s vote to deny the project was more a statement of “environmental superiority” than an honest appraisal of its impacts. “Can we now not allow anything because there may be a spill?” he asked.
Commissioner Parke bristled at Blough’s suggestion. Yes, Parke said, the project would allow for the production of 11,200 barrels a day of California crude. And yes, he said, the state imports 70 percent of its total oil. But at most, he stated, Las Flores would produce only “seven-tenths of one percent” of what the state now consumes. “That’s insignificant,” he said.
When going in front of the supervisors a few weeks hence, ExxonMobil faces a steep uphill fight. Each of the three South Coast supervisors is keenly tuned in to the immediate dangers posed by climate change; politically, it would be suicide for any of them to side with ExxonMobil. And for them to overturn the Planning Commission would require an argument that’s unimaginably compelling.
Bryan Anderson from ExxonMobil says it would be “unlawful” for the supervisors to uphold the commissioners because the commissioners did not rely on “substantial” evidence. “Substantial,’ he cautioned, “cannot be deemed synonymous with ‘any’ evidence.”
Rhetorically, that’s a far cry from Don Cornett’s admonition to the supervisors that they “stick it in your ear.” But maybe 35 years later, that’s the strongest argument ExxonMobil has.