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Plains Announces Plans to Replace Santa Barbara County Oil Pipelines

Company files application to replace its pipelines that were used by offshore oil and gas platforms before they shut down following Refugio Oil Spill in 2015

Plains All American Pipeline filed an application Tuesday with Santa Barbara County to replace its Line 901, shown here, and Line 903. Both pipelines have been shut down since Line 901 ruptured, causing the May 19, 2015 Refugio Oil Spill. Click to view larger
Plains All American Pipeline filed an application Tuesday with Santa Barbara County to replace its Line 901, shown here, and Line 903. Both pipelines have been shut down since Line 901 ruptured, causing the May 19, 2015 Refugio Oil Spill.  (Noozhawk file photo)

The company responsible for the 2015 Refugio oil spill has filed an application with Santa Barbara County to replace its 120-plus miles of oil and gas transportation pipelines.

Plains All American Pipeline’s two local lines, which run from the Gaviota Coast to Pentland in Kern County, have been shut down since the May 19, 2015, spill that dumped 123,228 gallons of crude oil onto the coastline and into the ocean near Refugio State Beach.

In the two-plus years since the spill, Plains has not revealed its plans for the pipelines — whether it would abandon them, replace portions of them, make the federally mandated repairs and apply to restart, or pursue an alternate route – until now.

Plains’ application is to build a new, smaller-diameter pipeline along mostly the same route as the existing pipe, said Karen Rugaard, manager of stakeholder relations for Plains, which is based in Texas.

The company also proposes building a new pump station between Sisquoc and Cuyama.

This new pipeline would wind its way through Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties, in addition to some federal lands. It would be an intrastate pipeline, so regulatory authority would fall to the counties and Office of the State Fire Marshal.

“We’re expecting a couple of years for permitting,” Rugaard said Wednesday.

Plains has no intention of abandoning the pipeline.

“The alternatives here are between a replacement pipeline and a repaired pipeline, and we prefer to do a replacement,” Rugaard said.

A number of factors led Plains to pursue a new pipeline instead of restarting its existing pipes, including the change to a smaller-diameter pipe to be more in sync with current oil production.

Repairs on a buried pipeline also require more excavation, while trenching and boring equipment can place new pipes with less surface disruption, Rugaard added.

Map shows Plains All American Pipeline’s proposed route for replacement crude oil pipelines on the Central Coast. Click to view larger
Map shows Plains All American Pipeline’s proposed route for replacement crude oil pipelines on the Central Coast. (Contributed photo)

Restarting the existing lines would require going through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) corrective action order, which is essentially a to-do list for Plains to conduct repairs on the pipelines.

Plains would also have to get a restart plan approved by PHMSA.

Plains met with Santa Barbara County staff on Tuesday and handed over a 5-inch-thick application to replace Lines 901 and 903, said Peter Cantle, deputy director of energy & minerals division of the Santa Barbara County Planning & Development Department.

The current pipeline is 24 inches in diameter along the coast and 30 inches inland, while the proposed smaller-diameter line ranges from 12 to about 20 inches, Cantle said.

“There are some minor tweaks to the design that would include some storage capability along the length of the pipeline, but it is still going back into essentially the same corridor the original pipeline used,” he told Noozhawk.

The next step for the county is to see if the application is complete, and then an environmental review process begins.

The county may attempt to partner up with federal agencies to do a joint California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Quality Act review to cover everyone’s needs, Cantle said.

The pipeline crosses into three counties and federal lands, and those agencies will have their own decision-making processes, he added.

Map shows energy projects in Santa Barbara County. Click to view larger
Map shows energy projects in Santa Barbara County. (Santa Barbara County photo)

The environmental impact report process will be very public, with multiple opportunities for comment, he noted.

A draft EIR then goes to the county Planning Commission.

Cantle said Plains has been doing a lot of outreach, not just with county staff to let them know the application was coming, but with political and community leaders within Santa Barbara County.

“We think they’re doing quite a lot of outreach at this point and at the front end of the permit process,” he said. 

Rugaard said Plains plans to file an application with San Luis Obispo County on Wednesday and with Kern County in the next few weeks.

“We fully expect that Plains All American will incorporate state-of-the-art safety features and practices into the design and operation of the new pipeline and that the county will maintain a significant role in working with the State Fire Marshal, the regulatory agency charged with overseeing intrastate oil pipelines, to assure the integrity of this proposed project,” said Joan Hartmann, Third District County Supervisor and chair of the board, in an emailed statement Wednesday. 

“Once the application is deemed complete, the new pipeline project will require an environment impact report and the public will have an opportunity to participate in the scoping process to identify issues for study,” she said.

Plains proposes building a smaller, uninsulated pipeline that has more safety valves, lower pressure, an anti-corrosion coating, and cathodic protection, a current that is meant to keep corrosion away from the pipeline.

The company also wants to use a thicker-walled pipeline along the coastline and other sensitive areas, Rugaard said.

The new Line 901R (R for replacement) would run from Las Flores Canyon to Sisquoc, where some oil is diverted toward the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County. Oil companies decide how much product is sent toward Phillips 66 versus Pentland, Rugaard said.

The new Line 903R would run from Sisquoc to Pentland in Kern County.

It would be built mostly within the company’s current easement, with a “relocation around the city of Buellton,” according to Plains.

The company wants to build a new pump station between Sisquoc and Cuyama as well, but has not yet purchased the property for one. Existing pump stations would also need some work to accommodate the smaller pipeline size.

Replacing the pipeline could result in 400-600 construction jobs, Plains said in a statement.

“Restoring crude oil transportation to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties will re-establish a critical link in the region’s energy infrastructure, reducing the state’s reliance on crude oil produced outside California,” said Willie Chiang, Plains’ U.S. Chief Operating Officer, in a statement.

The existing Plains Line 901, which runs from Las Flores Canyon processing plant to the Gaviota pump station, is the one that ruptured on May 19, 2015. Line 903 runs north from Gaviota to the Sisquoc pump station, and then east to Pentland in Kern County.

Both of Plains’ Santa Barbara County pipelines have been shut down, purged of oil and filled with inert gas since June 2015.

PHMSA’s investigation discovered Plains failed to detect the oil spill and the external corrosion that caused the pipeline rupture, so the corrective action order addresses the need for more in-line assessments, which measure pipeline thickness among other things, and a long-term corrosion prevention plan.

It also requires Plains to install additional safety valves and pressure sensors to its Line 901 pipeline.

Restarting the existing pipelines is a viable alternative if permitting is delayed or unsuccessful, Rugaard said.

The existing pipelines never leave California but were still designated as interstate lines, with federal oversight by the PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

That has since changed, and the California State Fire Marshal’s Office is working with PHMSA to deal with the aftermath of the spill and transition to state oversight for the future.

Regulatory authority for the pipeline will be transferred to the state once the PHMSA investigation and enforcement actions are completed, according to PHMSA.

The state will need to include Lines 901 and 903 in its annual inspection program, leak detection program, and its higher risk pipeline program, with annual checks for five years, since Line 901 was determined to have ineffective cathodic protection against corrosion, according to the PHMSA presentation.

“If either pipeline is replaced rather than repaired, such work will be considered new construction, and the design, construction, operation, and maintenance would fall under the regulatory authority of the CASFM,” according to PHMSA.

Eight offshore oil and gas platforms used the Santa Barbara County Plains pipelines to transport their oil and gas to refineries, and the platforms stopped production after the pipeline was shut down.

Those platforms are owned by Freeport-McMoRan (Platforms Harvest, Hermosa and Hidalgo), ExxonMobil (Platforms Harmony, Heritage and Hondo) and Venoco (Platform Holly).

Venoco has since declared bankruptcy and announced its plans to stop operating Platform Holly, and quitclaimed its South Ellwood Field leases back to the state.

The move means an end to dozens of jobs, tax revenues and local philanthropic efforts by the company, but also eased some environmental concerns. 

ExxonMobil, which stopped production at its offshore oil platforms after the county denied a permit for trucking oil from its processing facility, reportedly relocated about 200 employees after the pipeline shutdown.  

Plains obviously expects offshore oil operations to restart once a pipeline is back in business, so the company has customers.  

Post-spill cleanup and monitoring efforts have completed, but Plains is still facing claims and a class-action lawsuit for spill-related damages.

Plains was also indicted for criminal charges related to the spill, including allegations of knowingly discharging a pollutant into state waters, failure to notify proper authorities, and violating the Fish and Wildlife Code.

The case is tentatively scheduled for trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court later this year.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Plains All American Pipeline Public Information Document on Lines 901 and 903 Replacement Project

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