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

BEATING DEAD HORSES:  Back when I still harbored entrepreneurial delusions, I thought I’d try my hand at cornering the market on nihilism. I hadn’t figured out what I’d make, exactly, but I knew what my corporate slogan would be. “Nothing Can Be Done.” Stark. Simple. Defiantly defeatist. What better way to launch a new business empire? If nothing else, I figured it would shut up Nike’s nose-to-the-grindstone optimism of “Just Do It.”

Somehow I never got around to doing it. Perhaps I lacked the courage of my pessimism. Or maybe life happened. I am reminded of all this — what could have been — when looking back at the year 2022. In my personal rearview mirror, last year seems like one, big, messy, undifferentiated smear. 

On closer inspection, however, a whole lot managed to get done. And right here. And a whole lot of that was genuinely astonishing. Given the decided numbness some of us still feel — as dubious groundhogs warily emerging from our COVID bunkers — I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight a few.

Let’s start with the most obvious. ExxonMobil may not be the world’s biggest oil company, but in Santa Barbara County, it is. Like the poor, ExxonMobil has always been with us. It’s been one of our big, badass oil giants forever telling us to “stick it in your ear” whenever we’ve had the temerity to suggest they curb their emissions. But last year, it was Exxon’s ear into which the proverbial “it” got stuck. And it was the county doing the “sticking.”

Late in the fall, ExxonMobil spokespeople in Houston confirmed rumors that it was pulling up stakes in Santa Barbara County — where it has owned and operated a massive onshore oil processing plant for more than 30 years. Over the decades, Exxon has fed this sprawling industrial fortress with crud pumped from three offshore platforms: the distilled, compressed prehistoric remains of zillions of single-cell sea creatures that over the eons have made up the vast sea of petrochemical wealth lying immediately off our coast.

I don’t know that Exxon’s departure qualifies more as part of the “Giant Resignation” or the “Quiet Quit,” but the oil giant was anything but resigned or quiet when Santa Barbara’s board of supervisors and planning commissioners voted to deny the company the trucking permits it needed to get its oil to refineries in Kern County. Exxon has been effectively shut down since the Plains All American pipeline sprung a major leak in 2015 that has been neither repaired nor replaced since. 

Exxon responded by suing the county — as it promised it would — claiming the supervisors relied on the histrionic testimony of nitwits and rabble-rousers rather than the cold, hard science of the traffic engineers they hired to say trucking was perfectly safe. Then, later that year, the company sold off all its county assets at a reported loss of $2 billion to a newly formed corporate entity. This group is led by a team of petrochemical swashbucklers who have demonstrated a willingness to dance with the environmentalist devil if that’s what it takes to make a deal. So stay tuned. 

The headline should have been, “Santa Barbara County Beats Exxon 0-0.”

One point bears repeated overstating. Exxon and its highly paid traffic engineers got positively spanked by a team of unpaid interns who volunteered for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). 

Exxon and its experts argued that trucking 11,000 barrels’ worth of oil a day from Santa Barbara to Kern County via Highway 166 — 140 miles of steep, twisting, blind-curved, two-laned blacktop — would fall well within the state’s road safety threshold. Yes, the additional truck traffic would add “slightly” to the safety risk, they conceded, but in the real world, they argued, Exxon would be adding just nine additional truck trips a day. 

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The big environmental freak-out was: What if a tanker truck overturned, spilling its contents into the Cuyama River? That river feeds into the reservoir upon which Santa Maria depends and runs alongside much of Highway 166.

Based on the company’s worst-case analysis, its additional tanker traffic would result in only one river spill every 17 years.

Who could put up a fuss about that?

It turns out the interns from the EDC could. And they did. They discovered that since 2000, there had been no less than 15 oil tanker truck accidents within county limits. Of those, eight had happened along the route proposed by Exxon. Of those, six had taken place since 2016. In four of those, the driver died. In the most recent — March 2020 — no one died, but 4,500 gallons of crude spilled into the Cuyama River. 

An interesting detail that managed to get lost in the din involves the burgeoning cannabis industry that’s helping to strip-mine the vast groundwater basins underlying the Cuyama Valley. Not counted in Exxon’s traffic analysis was the fact that 400 to 500 cannabis workers now travel Highway 166. These are people who have no other way to go from their homes in Santa Maria to their jobs in Cuyama. Had these numbers been included in Exxon’s own traffic analysis, it’s not clear that even Exxon could have made their claims of traffic safety.

The real headline should have been “Interns Beat Exxon 0-0.”

From an energy perspective, last year proved both tumultuous and momentous. Governor Gavin Newsom, inspired by a fear of energy blackouts caused by a potential shortfall in electricity, singlehandedly gave the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant up in Morro Bay a new lease on life. Had the governor not intervened, the plug would have been pulled on Diablo in 2025 when its federal license expires. Initially, Newsom wanted to extend PG&E’s license by 10 years. But in response to the uproar generated by betrayed environmentalists, Newsom backed down to a five-year extension.

At first blush, the timing seemed a little awkward. In March of last year, the Inspector General — a federal oversight position — issued a scathing report on the lack of diligence exhibited during safety inspections at the plant. The report focused on a leak sprung in a steel pipe that fed one of the plant’s backup cooling systems. The pipe had corroded because moisture had accumulated under its insulation sleeve. A small hole allowed four gallons to spray out every minute. 

The Inspector General was positively underwhelmed by the job performed by on-site safety inspectors assigned to the plant by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stating that the inspectors had only spent five hours doing some inspections that required no less than 12 hours. They claimed to have inspected the area where the leak occurred, when in fact they had not. 

None of this inspires the sort of confidence one would like to have when dredging an aging and ailing nuclear power plant out of the mothballs. But with the state in the midst of yet another 1,000-year drought — and heat waves you could surf — California’s reliable supply of hydro-electric power was iffy at best. 

The big transformative possibility here, however, is wind energy. The Central Coast has long been regarded the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind energy, and this past year, the federal government finally issued about 400 square miles of offshore leases. The proposed wind farm, 20 miles off the coast of Morro Bay, is for about 300 wind turbines, each with a blade longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. 

None of this would have come to pass were it not for Congressmember Salud Carbajal, who wrestled it out with Navy brass who weren’t happy about losing an area in the ocean where they have traditionally blown things up and trained their fleet of aircraft carriers on how to stage formations. Should anything come to pass from all this, these new wind turbines should be generating at least as much clean, non-nuclear electricity as Diablo Canyon produced at its peak. 

A lot more happened last year, but I’ve painted myself into a corner and run out of gas and space. But very clearly, something got done. 

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