ExxonMobil thinks it has an “emergency” on its hands, after a pipeline that moves some of its crude oil from offshore platforms to refineries broke in Santa Barbara County. So it has asked permission to run eight oil-laden trucks up Highway 101 to refineries in the north every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Exxon oil has been piling up in storage units since the 10.6-mile pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline burst on May 19 and spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude, a fifth of that into the ocean. The company says it has cut back its production, but says it has just 20 days of storage capacity left.
The question is: What constitutes an emergency? The SB County Department of Planning and Development is expected to decide that within days and Energy Division Director Kevin Drude told the Santa Barbara Independent that the permits would be granted if the situation was deemed a threat to public health or essential public services.
Drude said Exxon argued in its application that its Las Flores Canyon facility, where oil was piling up, was designed to handle more production and lowering that introduced safety risks. Environmentalists suspect that a greater threat to safety lies in trucks with 5,000 gallons of oil barreling up the freeway at all hours of the day and night.
“We’re coming out of one disaster; we don’t want to walk into another,” Environmental Defense Center chief counsel Linda Krol reportedly told a group last week. She wants Exxon to go through the normal permit process, which can take months.
If Exxon is granted a permit, there is no telling how long the truck convoys will continue. Investigators have found extensive corrosion in the short stretch of pipeline already excavated. But the aging pipeline’s condition may indicate widespread problems throughout the network of pipelines in the region.
Plains, one of the nation’s largest pipeline owners, assembled its network by buying a lot of already aging infrastructure decades ago, presumably priced accordingly. The company has a miserable safety record and the Los Angeles Times detailed some of it.
More than a dozen spills in the U.S. and Canada since 2004 have spread around 2 million gallons of hazardous liquids across the landscape. The company operates 18,000 miles of pipelines. The federal EPA sued the company in 2010 over a series of spills in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. That cost Plains $41 million in upgrades and $3.25 million in fines.
Some of the oil from two 2004 Texas spills ended up in the Pecos and Sabine rivers. A 2011 spill of 1 million gallons was the second-largest in the history of Alberta, Canada. The smell shut down a school for days.
The oil that travels through the Santa Barbara pipeline is small compared to California’s oil-refining capacity of 2 million barrels a day.