Poodle | Santa Barbara County Supervisors Pull Plug on ExxonMobil

Oil Giant’s Trucking Plan Down, Plant Stays Dark

A tanker-truck oil spill off State Route 166 in 2020. | Credit: Daniel Bertucelli/SBCFD

RISK OF UPSET OR UPSET ABOUT RISK?  It’s probably the case that ExxonMobil — the world’s biggest, baddest oil company — was doomed from the outset. Still, it would have been nice had they made a better effort. 

To be fair, it may not have mattered. It wasn’t just that Santa Barbara’s political reality was against them, though it undoubtedly was. It’s that the facts — the ones you can see with your own two eyes, as opposed to the ones magically conjured by the cookie-cutter algorithms of traffic engineers — were dead-set against them, too. Accordingly, the county supervisors voted 3 to 2 this Tuesday to indefinitely pull the plug on ExxonMobil — long a looming presence along the coast and a foundational player in Santa Barbara’s offshore oil industry. A couple of months earlier, the Planning Commission did the same thing.

In the world of petro-politics, that’s staggering. Think Jack and the Beanstalk meets David and Goliath. Think Bambi kicking Godzilla’s ass.

At contention was whether ExxonMobil should be allowed to truck oil pumped into its Gaviota plant in Las Flores Canyon to the Pentland processing plant in Kern County for the next seven years. Permission would allow ExxonMobil to resume production at its massive industrial plant that’s been shut down since May 2015 through no fault of its own. That’s when the criminally neglected pipeline — owned and operated by Plains All American Pipeline — ruptured by Refugio state park. The ensuing spill was big enough to seep under the freeway and ooze its way into the ocean. Platoons of professionals attired in white hazmat suits were hired to put the toothpaste back in Humpty Dumpty’s broken tube.

Initially, ExxonMobil proposed trucking its oil — about 70 truckloads a day, seven days a week — north to Santa Maria to a facility owned by Phillips 66. It wasn’t that long a drive, and it’s a relatively straight shot. The supervisors would have been hard-pressed to say no. But then, without any advance notification, Phillips 66 announced in June 2020 it would be shutting down its Santa Maria plant forthwith.

Forced to resort to Plan B, ExxonMobil proposed trucking its oil to the Pentland facility. This destination was so obviously problematic that even ExxonMobil had initially agreed it should be eliminated from consideration during the early stages of environmental review. That’s because the trip requires a 140-mile drive over some of steepest, windiest, two-laniest roads you’ll find this side of the Mississippi River, replete with angina-inducing hairpin turns and downhill grades guaranteed to burn out your brakes. 

If Caltrans had purposefully set out to engineer a road to induce road rage, they’d have come up with Highway 166. There are no passing lanes. There are no side pullouts where slow-moving, view-blocking trucks — of which there are scads choking off Highway 166 — can let impatient motorists pass.

In other words, Highway 166 is a disaster that doesn’t have to wait very long to happen. Making matters even worse, much of the route to Pentland runs right alongside a significant stretch of the Cuyama River. For ExxonMobil, this fact proved the kiss of death. The risk of an oil spill into the Cuyama River could not be mitigated to an environmentally negligible — or remotely acceptable — level. It was a certified deal-killer unless the supervisors agreed to make what are called “findings of overriding considerations.” This is legal-wonk speak for, “We wanna do it because the benefits outweigh the risks, so please shut up.” How the supes balance those risks is totally up to their discretion.

ExxonMobil’s other problem is that the extra truck trips would generate 10,000 metric tons of additional greenhouse gases a year. That’s 10 times the level the county considers acceptable. And that doesn’t count the 300,000 tons that would be produced if the Las Flores Canyon plant were fired up again. 

To be fair, ExxonMobil did pretty much everything it could to address the truck safety problem short of implanting computer microchips into the teeth of its drivers. Safe driving training. Emergency response training. No driving in the rain. An emergency response trailer parked nearby. Drones dispatched in case of accidents. Cameras in the cab to ensure drivers don’t nod off. All that was close, but still not quite a cigar. 

So the traffic consultants were dispatched to finish the job. Highway 166, they stressed, had only a “slightly higher” rate of accidents than the state average. With all the proposed precautions in place, they estimated there’d be just one crash causing oil to get into the river every 17 years. When the traffic engineers finished all their gyrations, they assured us that the net increase in truck traffic on Highway 166 because of ExxonMobil would be just nine trips a day. That’s less than one every two hours.

To quote noted American philosopher Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” 

Then lightning struck. Call it reality. Early in the morning of March 20, 2020, a truck driver hauling a load of oil came careening down one of Highway 166’s steep gradients and waited too long to pump the brakes. Then he pumped too hard. The truck flipped, and about 4,500 of its 6,600-gallon load came spilling out. Into the Cuyama River. 

Once every 17 years?

Three interns for the Environmental Defense Center researched the matter further. Since 2000, they discovered, there had been 15 tanker truck accidents within county limits. Of those, eight had happened along the route proposed by ExxonMobil. And of those, six had taken place since 2016. In four, the driver died. 

Once every 17 years? 

It’s like the old joke where the wife catches her husband in bed with another woman: “Who you going to believe,” he shouts out, “me or your lying eyes?”

This Tuesday, three of the supervisors voted to believe their lying eyes.

Like I say, ExxonMobil was doomed

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