Santa Barbara County Supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors couldn't take action on the pipeline valve project after getting stuck in a 2-2 vote Tuesday. Board chair Das Williams, left, and Supervisor Laura Capps sided with the Planning Commission to deny the project, while Supervisors Steve Lavagnino, right, and Bob Nelson voted to overturn the decision and approve the project. They are seen here at a July meeting in Santa Barbara. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

After more than an hour of public comment from dozens of community members on Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors was split on whether to approve Pacific Pipeline Co.’s oil pipeline safety valve project.

The county Planning Commission previously denied the valve installation project for the pipelines that caused the 2015 Refugio oil spill.

Pacific Pipeline, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, appealed the Planning Commission’s decision — which it made after hearing from about 30 public commenters concerned about the restart of oil production and pipeline use, and the lack of a recent environmental impact report — stating that speculation on pipeline operation is outside of the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction.

Supervisors Das Williams and Laura Capps voted against granting the appeal, while Supervisors Bob Nelson and Steve Lavagnino voted for granting the appeal and approving the project, resulting in a tie vote with which the board is unable to take action on the matter. Supervisor Joan Hartmann recused herself from the discussion and vote since the pipeline route comes close to her property.

Pacific Pipeline also said that denial of the project contradicts the purpose of Assembly Bill 864, which requires operators near coastal zones to use the “best available technology … to reduce the amount of oil spilled in an oil spill to protect state waters and wildlife.”

“What the Planning Commission should have focused on, and what we’re asking [the board] to focus on, is the addition of safety valves. As the fire marshal explained, if there ever were a pipeline failure, these valves would reduce the spill volume significantly,” Dawn Sestito, an attorney for ExxonMobil, said.

“If the appeal is denied and safety valves are not available within Santa Barbara County, [Pacific Pipeline Company] will have no choice but to consider other options to comply with AB 864.”

Sestito also noted that San Luis Obispo County and Kern County have both already approved installation of the additional valves.

“Restart’s not why we’re here today; that’s not what we’re asking permission for,” Sestito said. “If you support the valves today, that’s not a vote for restart; it’s a vote for safety and making sure the pipeline is as safe as possible if it restarts.”

Supervisor Capps questioned why the valves would be necessary unless ExxonMobil were planning to restart use of the pipelines.

“It defies logic for me that you would need safety valves if you don’t restart,” Capps said. “I was elected to look at the big picture, and the big picture is climate change. It’s reliance on fossil fuels, it’s the direction that we’re headed in the wrong direction — nine years of the hottest temperatures on Earth recorded. Mass climate events continue to happen, and yet we’re being asked to say thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a myopic piece of this.”

The project would have installed 16 safety valves to the pipeline that has not been in operation since it ruptured on May 19, 2015, spilling more than 123,000 gallons of crude oil onto the shoreline and ocean near Refugio State Beach. 

Plains All American, which owned the pipelines at the time, was found to be criminally and civilly liable for the spill.

The Plains All-American Pipeline section that ruptured and caused the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill is dug up and repaired. ExxonMobil subsidiary Pacific Pipeline Company purchased the pipelines from Plains in 2022.
The Plains All American pipeline section that ruptured and caused the 2015 Refugio oil spill is dug up and repaired. ExxonMobil subsidiary Pacific Pipeline Co. purchased the pipelines from Plains in 2022. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo

“No one’s asking you to deny automatic shutoff valves,” attorney Barry Capello said. “We’re asking you to delay them by getting a full environmental impact report.”

Most of the public commenters spoke against the project, urging the Board of Supervisors to deny the appeal.

“There’s no risk of a spill if there’s no oil in it,” public commenter Katherine Carmichael said. “Please, let’s keep it this way.”

Others within the business community or representing one of the local chambers of commerce spoke in support of the appeal, arguing that voting against it would “send a loud message to the business community.”

Because the board’s hearing resulted in a tie, no action was taken Tuesday.

“I suppose that this is similar to a denial, though it is my understanding that it also does not carry with it the prejudice that a denial would have, meaning the applicant could apply in less than the year for another application” Supervisor Williams said.

“So, normally a denial would prohibit the applicant from applying for a year, and this lack of action would not carry with it that provision.”