Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

SMOKE SIGNALS:  Once a year, around Christmas, my father and I would huddle under the eaves of the garage to smoke a ceremonial cigar. As rituals went, it was sweet but awkward. My father — having played a significant role in bringing nine children into the world — was not merely comfortable with long silences; he relished them. So mostly we just smoked. And also spat. Quite a bit. By then, my father had reached the age of acceptance when it came to farts that happened to sneak out. After one such escape, he broke his customary silence to explain how the phrase “to be hoisted by one’s petard” literally meant to be knocked off one’s feet by the force of one’s flatulence. A devout Catholic, my father knew his Latin. The word “petard,” he explained, meant “fart” back around the year 900 and shares the same root meaning as the word “petroleum.”

Watching Exxon and the enviros duking it out this Tuesday in front of the county supervisors, I found myself squinting at remembrances of cigar smoke puffed with my father some 30 years ago. 

Spoiler alert: Santa Barbara enviros won and Exxon lost in a tie vote. With Supervisor Joan Hartmann having to recuse herself because of a conflict of interest, the remaining supes found themselves terminally deadlocked. Technically, that means no action got taken. Practically speaking, it meant no dice for Exxon, at least for the time being. 

To the extent anyone can feel sorry for Exxon, I almost did. After all, the oil giant was seeking permits to install much-needed safety devices — automatic shutoff valves — on a stretch of pipeline near Gaviota that eight years ago sprang a 450,000-gallon leak — almost one gallon for every county resident — that spread out 150 miles once it hit the ocean. Had Exxon’s predecessor — Plains All American Pipeline — installed those devices, everyone agrees that that 2015 spill — for which Plains would be found guilty of criminal neglect and pay out hundreds of millions in damages and penalties — would not have inflicted nearly as much damage. 

Back then, Supervisor Das Williams — who now serves as chair for the county Board of Supervisors — was a member of the state legislature where he went into overdrive writing and winning passage of a bill that made installation of such safety valves all but mandatory for state oil pipelines. Exxon’s attorney, Dawn Sestito — redoubtable, formidable, and very impressive — challenged Williams to have the courage to stand up for the law he wrote. “It’s your law,” Sestito reminded Williams multiple times. “I hope you will stand up for it.” Williams squirmed — acknowledging he felt like “a bug or a butterfly being pinned to the wall of my legislation” — but only a little. 

Without the valves, Exxon — or whatever entity Exxon chooses to sell to — can’t resume oil production off the coast.

In the past eight years, climate change has morphed from the slow-moving zombies in 1940s horror movies to the cranked-out zombies of today, all of whom could play middle linebacker in the NFL. Each of the last nine years has been the hottest year in recorded history. To state the obvious, that includes the past eight years

During that time, we learned that oceans — once regarded as a vast repository for much of the carbon dioxide spewed by Homo sapiens — havereached their saturation point and can no longer absorb carbon at the same rate. Bad news. 

A thousand people are now presumed dead in Maui. Tens of thousands of fire refugees are fleeing for their lives in Canada. You do the math. Little wonder fire scientists have just coined a new term for the times we live in: They’re calling it the Pyrocene Age

Getting back to cigars, farts, and the oil industry knocking itself on its own ass in Santa Barbara County, it’s worth belaboring a few obvious points: In the 1980s, it was Celeron and the All American Pipeline Company — the two companies who originally secured permits for the now-failed pipeline — who bitterly fought the county’s efforts to require automatic shutoff valves. These companies sued the county and won, arguing that because the pipeline crossed into other states, Santa Barbara lacked the jurisdiction to impose such requirements. All other pipeline operators, by the way, agreed to these terms.

Because of this ruling, Santa Barbara County energy officials still cannot see the recent studies showing how much corrosion there is in the failed lines and how extensive that corrosion is both inside and outside the pipes. Exxon will tell you that they’ve injected inert gases into the pipeline and there’s absolutely no leakage. 

That’s nice. It’s worth noting that the gas has been injected at 30 pounds of pressure per square inch, about one-third of what’s required for a bicycle tire. With oil in the pipe, the pressures achieved are closer to 600 pounds per square inch

“Trust us”? I don’t think so. 

Eight years ago, Exxon, Freeport-McMoRan, and Venoco were all pumping away offshore. At their peak, they hit 35,000 barrels a day. The Pipeline spill — caused by a pipeline company — put all three out of business. Venoco went bankrupt.

In the past eight years, we also learned just how accurately Exxon scientists — beginning in the 1970s — predicted the devastation caused by climate change. Yet the same company spent millions — think full-page ads in the New York Times denying the validity of the very science it had pioneered. At some point, criminal charges will stick. 

I admit I have doubts that the supervisors’ vote is legally defensible. But when it comes to simple justice, Exxon got what it had coming. We’ve been getting on the company’s petard for at least 50 years now. Personally, I prefer the smell of cigar smoke. 


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