Santa Barbara County supervisors split on Pacific Pipeline valve project appeal
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Santa Barbara County supervisors split on Pacific Pipeline valve project appeal

Dec 16, 2023

County Reporter/Associate Editor

An abbreviated Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors was unable to reach a decision on an appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial of a permit for Pacific Pipeline Co. to install safety valves in a pipeline that ruptured in 2015.

In twin 2-2 votes — one to uphold the appeal filed by Pacific Pipeline and one to deny the appeal — supervisors allowed the Planning Commission’s decision to stand Tuesday, but set up a potential for the pipeline to be reopened without any additional safety valves.

The tie votes were the result of 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann recusing herself from the public hearing because the pipeline passes near a corner of her Santa Ynez Valley property, enroute from the Gaviota Coast to Kern County.

Board Chairman and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams and 2nd District Supervisor Laura Capps opposed the appeal, while 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino supported it.

Of 36 public speakers, 28 opposed the project, while just eight supported it.

Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors chose to retain the existing goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while approving draft of the revised 2030 Climate Action Plan, a high-level overview of how the county will fight climate change.

Pacific Pipeline and ExxonMobil were granted approval by the county zoning administrator to install 16 new safety valves — five new check valves and 11 new motor-operated valves — on the line that has not carried oil since the 2015 rupture that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil, some of which flowed into the ocean, fouling local beaches and migrating south beyond Ventura County.

That decision was appealed to the Planning Commission by the Tautrim family, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and GreyFox LLC, who said the pipeline was corroded and dangerous and there would be no reason to install the valves unless the pipeline was going to be put back into operation.

The Planning Commission upheld the appeal on a 3-2 vote, and the oil companies appealed that decision to the Board of Supervisors.

Representatives of the oil companies said part of the reason for installing the safety valves was to meet provisions of Assembly Bill 864, which Williams authored while a state assemblyman in response to the 2015 spill, a fact that was brought up multiple times in Tuesday’s hearing.

The bill requires an operator of an existing pipeline near environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas in the coastal zone to submit a plan to retrofit the pipeline using the best available technology ... based on a risk analysis conducted by the operator to reduce the amount of oil released in a spill to protect state waters and wildlife.

Pacific Pipeline determined adding the new valves would be the best available technology to accomplish the task, and the plan was approved by the state fire marshal.

But because the county rejected the application to install the valves, it means the valves are no longer available to Pacific Pipeline/Exxon, which can now devise an alternative plan that doesn’t use valves and submit that to the state.

Santa Barbara County taxpayers may be getting a relative bargain when it comes to the cost of setting government policy and arbitrating disputes over how county codes are interpreted, according to county staff.

If the fire marshal OKs the plan, the oil companies would meet the requirements of AB 864 and the county would be cut out of the loop.

That was something Nelson said he didn’t want to have happen.

“I don’t see how we deny this appeal unless our goal as a board is to obstruct the vested rights of PPC [to operate the pipeline],” Nelson said.

But Capps said she had to take a “big picture” look at the project.

“I was elected to look at the big picture, and the big picture is climate change, it’s a reliance on fossil fuels,” Capps said. “It’s a direction that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

“Nine years of the hottest temperatures on Earth recorded,” she continued. “Mass climate events continue to happen, and yet we’re being asked to say thumb’s up or thumb’s down on a myopic piece of this. Well, I say ‘no’ to that.”

Lavagnino noted he had a long history of votes supporting a transition to cleaner energy.

“But … it’s a transition, and that’s what always seems to get lost here,” Lavagnino said. “It’s that when we come to these hearings, it’s ‘don’t ship it, don’t truck it, don’t pipeline it, but I still want to use it.’

“OK, maybe you don’t want to use it,” he said, indicating the audience. “But the vast majority of the people in Santa Barbara County are using, and basically addicted to, this product, which is petroleum.”

Lavagnino applauded those who carpooled to the hearing in electric vehicles, but he pointed out that 770 pounds of the vehicles’ weight is plastic, which is made from petrochemicals.

Williams said he couldn’t remove the decision from the damage that’s being done to the world and that’s been done to Santa Barbara County, so he would not support upholding the appeal.

“We need to make better decisions in this community,” Williams said, pointing out the county will need to add 100,000 electric vehicles in the next six and a half years to meet its share of the state’s emission reduction goals.

But he also noted, “I would feel foolish if we denied this [project] and Exxon gets an alternate plan approved at the state fire marshal without automatic shutoff valves.”

County Reporter/Associate Editor

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