On May 19, 2015, an oil pipeline broke near the coast in Santa Barbara County, harming wildlife and coating local beaches with oil. (For details about the spill, see recent blogs by my colleagues Anthony Swift and Damon Nagami.) The pipeline is now completely shut down and will be for some time. One of the oil companies that had been using the pipeline is ExxonMobil, pumping oil from its offshore platform.
Last week, Exxon asked the County of Santa Barbara for an emergency permit to truck oil from its platform up U.S. Highway 101 to locations in northern Santa Barbara County. The proposal is for eight tanker trucks per hour ... 24 hours per day ... 7 days each week. Transporting oil in trucks on public roads is already extremely risky, but on top of that, if you have ever driven over Gaviota Pass at night you know how problematic this proposal is.
The linchpin of Exxon's application was proving that an emergency had occurred within the context of the County's zoning ordinance. Exxon made two arguments, neither of which was supported by any evidence. First, it argued that shutting down its offshore platform would deprive the Southern California Gas Company of a significant supply source of natural gas, putting the residents of Santa Barbara at risk. Second, Exxon argued that there would be a loss of property tax revenues that would harm local governments.
The County denied Exxon's application yesterday, finding that Exxon had not shown the existence of an emergency. The County pointed out that a Gas Company spokesperson said that they had plenty of supply and none of their customers would see any effect from losing the Exxon offshore supply. (You would expect that Exxon would find out what the Gas Co. would say before making a claim to local government based on an outright misstatement about Gas Co. supplies and operations -- but at any rate Exxon could not prove an emergency based on alleged harm to Gas Co. customers.)
On the property tax argument, the County pointed out that, if there were a drop in revenues, claims could be made for damages and so no emergency exists now.
What now? Exxon could take the County to court, but I think that they would have a tough case to make. Or they could file for a non-emergency permit that would allow for public participation and environmental review of the trucking proposal. Stay tuned for further developments.
Finally, I'd like to acknowledge the work of Linda Krop at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. Linda and her team were on top of this mess from Day 1.