Conservation Groups Oppose Exxon’s Plan to Restart Offshore Rigs Idled by Refugio Oil Spill

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May 19 of this year marked the fifth anniversary of the massive Plains All American Pipeline spill near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County that resulted in the idling of Exxon’s three offshore oil platforms that rise like sentinels from the coastal waters.

The collapse of the severely corroded pipeline resulted in 140,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into the ocean, killing hundreds of birds and marine mammals, halting recreational and commercial fishing and fouling four “marine protected areas” created under the privately-funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative as the spill was cleaned up.

Exxon’s offshore rigs have remained idle since the Refugio Oil Spill, but the oil giant, responsible for the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989, had plans to restart its offshore drilling platforms in Santa Barbara County and truck that oil through California.

However, opponents of offshore drilling say two unrelated developments that took place on August 12 could undermine these plans. A coalition of conservation, environmental justice and indigenous groups is calling on the oil company to abandon this project and decommission its offshore rigs.

First, Santa Barbara County planning staff released a report opposing the use of State Route 166 to truck oil to Kern County, noting that use of this route would “increase the likelihood of accidents and oil spills,” according to a press release from the coalition.

The report stated, “The No Project Alternative was initially found to be the environmentally superior alternative, as none of the impacts associated with the Project or other alternative would occur. CEQA requires that if the No Project Alternative is found to be the environmentally superior alternative, then the next  most  environmentally  preferred  alternative  from  among  the  other  alternatives  must  be identified.”

The SEIR identified the “No Trucking During Rainy Periods Alternative” as the “next most environmentally preferred alternative.”

Second, Phillips 66 announced that it will close its Santa Maria refining facility in Arroyo Grande and associated crude oil pipelines by 2023, shutting down the other option for ExxonMobil to get its offshore oil to a refinery.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center that represents Get Oil Out! and Santa Barbara County Action Network, called on ExxonMobil to withdraw what she called “its risky oil project.”

“ExxonMobil’s proposal was already ill-conceived from an environmental and climate justice point of view, and now it is unsuitable in light of Phillips’ plans to convert its refinery to renewable fuels,” said Krop. “There is even less reason now for ExxonMobil to put our coast and communities at risk.”

She said Exxon’s trucking plan called for up to 70 oil tanker trucks per day on coastal Highway 101 and Route 166, “24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

“The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission is scheduled to hold hearings on the project on Sept. 2 and Sept. 9 before deciding whether to recommend approval, but those hearings may be postponed by the new developments,” Krop explained.

“This is great news for California communities, motorists and wildlife threatened by ExxonMobil’s dangerous oil trucking plan. Exxon should follow Phillips 66’s lead and end its dirty energy operations on California’s Central Coast,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With the oil industry reeling, it’s time to end offshore drilling along this beautiful, bountiful coastline, not revive it.”

After its platforms were shut down in 2015, the company proposed to restart its platforms, load its offshore oil onto tanker trucks at its Las Flores Canyon processing facility, and truck up to 470,400 gallons of oil per day to facilities in Kern County and Santa Maria, said Monsell.

“California suffers hundreds of oil-truck incidents a year, and many result in oil spills. There were 216 trucking accidents along ExxonMobil’s proposed route from 2015 to 2020, California Highway Patrol data show, resulting in nine deaths and 92 injuries. A tanker truck crashed off Highway 166 on March 21, spilling more than 4,500 gallons of oil into the Cuyama River above Twitchell Reservoir,” she stated.

Exploitation of oil has brought devastation to the Chumash 

Representatives of other groups that are part of the coalition also expressed their opposition to the plan.

“The exploitation of oil in the Chumash homelands has brought untold economic, environmental, and social devastation to our peoples for well over a century,” said Alicia Cordero, First Nations program officer for Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. “We are heartened to finally see communities all throughout Santa Barbara County standing with us against these injustices while facing down the last gasps of the dying local oil industry.”

“Exxon’s oil trucking plan was already extremely controversial, with cities of San Luis Obispo, Goleta, Santa Barbara and Carpinteria all passing resolutions calling for denial of the project,” said Katie Davis, chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter. “Given the pending closure of the Santa Maria pump station and even longer and more dangerous route, it’s time to take trucking oil off the table entirely.”

University of California at Santa Barbara’s Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board and Environmental Justice Alliance released a joint comment:

“As UCSB students, we are glad to see our region move one step further from fossil fuel infrastructure that endangers all of our communities. We are happy to see that Phillips 66 recognizes that there is no future for drilling on the Central Coast, and hope that Exxon will quickly recognize the futility of its oil trucking proposal. It’s time to transition away from fossil fuels and toward a just, sustainable, and equitable future.”

The coalition opposing ExxonMobil’s trucking plan includes Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, 350 Santa Barbara, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Defense Center, UCSB Environmental Justice Alliance, UCSB Environmental Affairs Board, Food and Water Action, GOO!, SBCAN, Sierra Club’s Los Padres Chapter, UCSB Academic Senator Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan, Surfrider Foundation Santa Barbara County Chapter and Los Padres ForestWatch.

In May, the Center for Biological Diversity said the idling of the seven offshore platforms served by the pipeline has prevented “massive emissions of climate pollution” since the spill.

“If the seven offshore drilling platforms served by the pipeline had not gone idle, they would have added 33.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution to the atmosphere. That’s roughly equivalent to operating two coal-fired power plants in California over the same period — or to burning more than 37 billion tons of coal,” the group stated.

In April of 2019, a Santa Barbara jury found Plains All America criminally liable for the failure of its severely corroded pipeline and delays in reporting the oil spill and a judge issued a $3,347,650 fine.

On March 13 of this year, Federal officials also announced a civil settlement with Plains All American  arising out of Plains’ violations of the federal pipeline safety laws and liability for the discharge of approximately 2,934 barrels of crude oil from Plains’ Line 901 in the Refugio Oil Spill. The settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice requires the company to modify its natural operations to implement safeguards resulting from the spill and requires Plains to pay over $60 million in penalties, clean-up costs and natural assessment costs and damages.

Big Oil lobbyist led task force to create ‘marine protected areas’ impacted by the spill

Missing from the news coverage of the oil spill, the trial and sentencing and now the plans by the oil industry to restart three offshore platforms and build a new pipeline is one of the biggest and most ironic stories regarding the Refugio Oil Spill.

In a classic example of the deep regulatory capture that pervades what passes for “marine protection” in California, the head of the oil industry trade association that lobbies for the Plains All American Pipeline corporation happens to be the very same “marine guardian” who chaired the panel that created the so-called “marine protected areas” that were fouled by the spill.

“Plains All American, the owner of the pipeline, is a member of the Western States Petroleum Association,” proclaimed Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), in her statement responding to the spill in May 2015.

In an apparent conflict of interest, Reheis-Boyd served as the chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called marine “protected areas” (MPAs) in Southern California.

Four “marine protected areas” created under Reheis-Boyd — the Goleta Slough, Campus Point, Naples and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Areas — were imperiled by the oil spill that started at Refugio State Beach.

She also served on the task forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast, and North Coast from 2004 to 2012, as well as on a federal marine protected areas panel from 2003 to 2014. She served on these panels as the oil industry was fracking off the Southern California Coast.

Yet not one government official, NGO representative or reporter (except this one) mentioned that the head oil industry lobbyist promoting the expansion of offshore drilling and opposing legislation increasing protection of the California coast was the same state official who headed the panel to create questionable Southern California “marine protected areas” that don’t protect the ocean from fracking, offshore drilling, pollution, seismic testing and human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering.

Background: Big Oil exerts enormous influence over California regulators

Big Oil is the biggest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento — and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the biggest and most powerful lobbying organization. Big Oil, along with corporate agribusiness, developers, big water agencies, timber companies, and other Big Money interests, has captured the regulatory apparatus in California.

From January 1 to March 31, 2020, the same time that the Newsom Administration approved 1,623 new onshore oil drilling permits, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance, WSPA spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the first quarter of 2020 to influence legislators, the Governor’s Office and other state officials. The two oil industry giants combined to spend a total of $2,728,199 lobbying from January 1 to March 31.

Other big spenders on lobbying in the first quarter of 2020 include Aera Energy, formed in June 1997 and jointly owned by affiliates of Shell and ExxonMobil, with $290,826, and the California Resources Corporation, formerly Occidental Petroleum, with $213,489.

In the second quarter of 2020, WSPA spent $1,220,986 while Chevron spent $974,322 on lobbying in California, a total of $2,195,308.

Big Oil’s tentacles extend far and wide in California politics. Lobbying is just one of the methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.