Court hands SB County win in ExxonMobil case
A federal judge on Sept. 27 handed Santa Barbara County and environmental groups a big win in a dispute with ExxonMobil, setting back the oil giant’s hopes to reopen three offshore drilling platforms.
U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee upheld the county Board of Supervisors’ 2022 denial of an interim trucking permit sought by ExxonMobil to transport its oil on county thoroughfares until a pipeline becomes available.
“Since each supervisor voting to deny the application provided rational reasons for their vote, supported by the evidence in the record, the board did not abuse its discretion or act contrary to law when it denied Exxon’s application,” Gee wrote in her ruling.
ExxonMobil sued the board following its decision, which came on a 3-2 vote, seeking to have it reversed.
The Houston-based company says an interim trucking permit will enable it to reopen its three drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, which have been closed since the 2015 Refugio oil spill.
Prior to the spill, oil from the platforms was transported to refineries through two pipelines — formerly owned by Plains Pipeline, Exxon said in court papers.
One of the pipelines caused the spill when it ruptured, spewing about 142,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean just north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County.
Plains then shut down both pipelines. Permit applications to replace the pipelines or add safety valves to the existing pipelines are pending, Exxon says.
In the meantime, the platforms cannot restart without a means to transport the oil to market, according to Exxon.
An interim trucking permit to transport the oil would solve the problem, the company says.
But under the judge’s ruling, Exxon is not going to get one.
County officials welcomed the court’s ruling.
“The county is pleased that a federal judge agreed with the county in our decision to deny ExxonMobil a trucking permit,” county spokeswoman Kelsey Buttitta said in a statement to the Business Times.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Michelle Gray said the company is reviewing the court’s ruling and will evaluate its next move.
She said that despite the court upholding the county’s denial of the permit, the judge recognized “that we have a right to operate our existing facilities and affiliated pipelines in the county.
“We sought an interim trucking project as a temporary solution to restart our assets until a pipeline is available for crude transportation,” Gray added.
Environmental groups hailed the court’s ruling.
They said that besides helping restart the three drilling platforms, an ExxonMobil interim trucking permit would have been a step towards resuming operations at its Las Flores Canyon oil processing facility.
When operational, the facility was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the county, the groups said.
“This is a really important ruling because it ensures the protection of not just our coast and our environment, but also the safety of our roads,” Linda Krop, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, a party in the lawsuit, told the Business Times.
Awarding ExxonMobil an interim trucking permit would have allowed it to haul millions of gallons of oil per week through the county on Highways 101 and 166, according to the groups.
Krop said there have been eight serious accidents involving tanker trucks along the proposed route in the last several years, resulting in deaths, oil spills, injuries, fires, and road closures.
A divided Board of Supervisors denied ExxonMobil’s bid for the permit on March 8, 2022.
The board found that the trucking proposal was inconsistent with county provisions that streets and highways must be able to adequately handle such traffic and that the traffic would not be detrimental to the safety of the neighborhoods it passes through.
Krop said that in denying the permit, the board cited significant and unavoidable harms to biological, water and cultural resources that could occur in the event of a truck spill.
ExxonMobil sued the board three days later.
ExxonMobil argued in court papers that in denying the permit, “the board committed a prejudicial abuse of discretion.”
The board’s decision was based on “manufactured pretenses” demonstrating “its animus toward trucking, the oil industry in general, and ExxonMobil in particular,” the company argued.
But Judge Gee was not swayed and sided with the county and seven environmental and indigenous parties that had joined the lawsuit.
Besides the Environmental Defense Center, the other groups are the Center for Biological Diversity, Get Oil Out!, Santa Barbara County Action Network, Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club and Wishtoyo Foundation.
Dozens of other environmental groups also opposed ExxonMobil’s proposal.
“It’s time for Exxon to accept that the community won’t support drilling and transporting oil in their backyard,” Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.
“The costs of oil spills are too high to risk, and this decision is a well-deserved win for the community, ocean life and ecosystems,” Jones said.