Almost eight years after the Refugio Oil Spill, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission will hold a hearing Wednesday on the pipeline operator’s request to install safety valves on the crude oil lines that run from the Gaviota Coast to San Luis Obispo and Kern counties.
Plains All-American Pipeline was found criminally and civilly liable for the May 19, 2015, pipeline rupture that spilled 123,228 gallons oil onto the shoreline and ocean of southern Santa Barbara County near Refugio State Beach.
Federal investigators determined the company failed to detect the leak and the corrosion that caused it, and the pipelines haven’t been operated since the spill.
Plains recently sold the pipelines to ExxonMobil, which wants to restart production at its offshore oil platforms, and use the pipelines to transport its product to refineries.
Since the change of ownership request has not been processed yet, Plains is still the applicant on the books for the proposed valve-installation project, according to the county’s Planning and Development Department.
Plains filed an application to install 16 safety valves in the existing pipelines to comply with Assembly Bill 864, which requires operators in coastal zones to use the “best available technologies to reduce the amount of oil released in an oil spill to protect state waters and wildlife.”
Eleven of the valves would be motor-operated and five would be check valves, which automatically close when liquid pushes back on them.
In the 2015 oil spill, Plains continued to operate the pipeline for 35 minutes after the spill started, and the oil flowed downhill, under Highway 101 through a culvert, onto the shoreline and into the ocean.
There were no automatic shut-off valves in the pipelines, and other valves were remotely controlled by Plains personnel in the company’s Midland, Texas, control center.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal determined the safety-valve installation project meets the requirements of AB 864, according to the county.
The county’s zoning administrator, Linda Liu, approved the project last August.
Attorneys for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and several Gaviota Coast property owners appealed the project approval, and the Planning Commission will hear that appeal on Wednesday.
Appeal letters were filed by attorney Barry Cappello for the Tautrim Revokable Trust, attorney Christopher Jacobs for GreyFox, LLC (both representing specific Gaviota Coast-area property owners), and attorney Ana Citrin for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.
The appellants question the environmental review process for this project, and argue that the review should consider the impacts of restarting a non-operational pipeline.
This project uses a “highly unusual and legally questionable approach to (California Environmental Quality Act) compliance” by determining the project is exempt from CEQA and was reviewed with a CEQA addendum, Citrin wrote.
“There are significant outstanding questions regarding the soundness of the CEQA process and the adequacy of evidence to support required findings, including consistency with the Gaviota Coast Plan,” she wrote.
“By this appeal, we seek additional information and analysis in the form of an updated environmental analysis of the project’s visual and cumulative impacts, including necessary new or revised mitigation measures.”
In a staff report responding to appeal issues, planning personnel repeatedly write that the restart or replacement of the pipelines is not part of the proposed safety valve project, and that installing valves is considered repairs and maintenance.
County planning staff recommend that the Planning Commission deny the appeals and approve the project.
“The proposed project’s environmental review properly only analyzes impacts associated with installing the valves, the modification to the already-approved project,” staff wrote in the report to the Planning Commission.
Plains also has a pending application to completely replace the 123.4-mile pipelines, which has been in the environmental review process for several years.
Dozens of people have sent in comment letters urging the commissioners to deny the project, citing concerns about the pipeline’s environmental impacts and the potential for restarting the same pipeline found to be extensively corroded during the Refugio Oil Spill investigation.
There’s also some uncertainty regarding future production and pipeline ownership.
Plains is the applicant for the project, but has sold the pipelines to ExxonMobil, which in turn has decided to sell its Santa Ynez Unit assets – including three offshore oil platforms, an onshore processing facility and the transportation pipelines – to Sable Offshore Corp., a special purpose acquisition corporation created for this deal.
The new owner is targeting oil and gas production in January 2024, but if production doesn’t start by early 2026, assets would revert back to ExxonMobil, according to deal documents.
In November, ExxonMobil representatives said the sale of Santa Ynez Unit assets to Sable Offshore Corp. was expected to close in the first quarter of 2023.
The Planning Commission meeting starts at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Santa Barbara County Engineering Building, Room 17 at 123 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara (the first floor of the County Administration Building, past the security entrance.)
To make public comments during the meeting, people can attend in person, attend by Zoom Webinar, or comment from the Betteravia Government Center, Board of Supervisors conference room at 511 E. Lakeside Parkway in Santa Maria.