The company that was recently found guilty of several criminal counts in connection to a pipeline break that caused an oil spill near Refugio State Beach is moving forward with a proposed replacement project to reopen the pipeline — including 37 miles through San Luis Obispo County.
Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline applied last year to replace 123 miles of existing non-operational pipelines to move domestic crude oil produced offshore through Santa Barbara County, south San Luis Obispo County along Highway 166 and Kern County.
The existing lines, known as Line 901 and Line 903, began operation in the early 1990s. They have remained shut down since 2015, after a corroded on-shore pipeline ruptured suddenly and released 142,800 gallons of heavy crude oil onto the coastline near Gaviota.
Signaling the next stage in a long permitting process, San Luis Obispo County supervisors on Tuesday will consider signing an agreement with Santa Barbara County to work together to review and prepare an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act.
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A spokeswoman for Plains All American Pipeline said that company representatives hope the environmental impacts will be limited because the proposed route largely follows the existing right-of-way that has already been disturbed.
That route travels through federal Bureau of Land Management lands, Los Padres National Forest and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The project also includes a new pump station that would be located just south of the Carizzo Plain National Monument boundary.
Critics of the project are wary of the company’s record as well as the timing of building new infrastructure to support offshore oil production — both out of concern for climate change and because of the Trump administration’s stated interest in expanding offshore oil production off the West Coast.
“We are adamantly opposed to this project and think that letting this spill-prone company rebuild this pipeline would be a recipe for disaster,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans Program. She said new pipelines spill too, often due to faulty design or human error.
Building a new system, Monsell said, “could incentivize more drilling offshore.”
Plains All American Pipeline spokeswoman Karen Rugaard said the proposed project only “serves to resume production at existing platforms,” adding that the new pipe is significantly smaller. New 12-inch to 16-inch pipe would replace existing 24-inch to 30-inch pipe.
“The original pipeline was built in the 1980s assuming different assumptions over what production could be. The replacement pipeline is designed to accommodate historic production levels,” Rugaard said.
The company’s project website says the project “will include a number of operational and safety features to meet or exceed local, state and federal requirements.” The proposed pipeline, for example, would have 49 valves that can stop oil flow — more than twice as many as the original lines — which would mean a shorter distance between shutoff valves.
In response to concerns about historic leaks, Rugaard forwarded a company statement written in response to Plains All American Pipeline’s criminal conviction.
A Santa Barbara Superior Court jury in September found the company guilty of one felony and eight misdemeanors, including failure to properly maintain a highly pressured pipeline and killing marine mammals and sea birds.
The company said the jury erred in its verdict, and the company intends to consider legal options.
“Plains continues to accept full responsibility for the impact of the accident,” the company statement said. “We are committed to doing the right thing. The verdict reflected no knowing wrongdoing by Plains or our employees with respect to the operation of Line 901, and the testimony established our comprehensive cleanup effort.
“Numerous witnesses testified that Plains did everything possible to return areas impacted by the 2015 oil release to conditions as good as or better than before the release.”
Without a functioning pipeline, companies have resorted to trucking crude oil to destinations such as the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery and Kern County. And that comes with its own environmental and safety impacts.
“I don’t know that one or the other is better. They both have extreme safety issues,” said Rebecca August, a public lands advocate with Los Padres ForestWatch. That group does not oppose the project; rather, staff are monitoring the project to try to ensure the company takes every measure it can to reduce leaks. She said the pipeline traverses habitats designated as critical to the California condor, San Joaquin kit fox and other endangered species.
The public will have a few opportunities to weigh in.
Officials will take public comment at scoping meetings for the environmental review and there will likely be one in San Luis Obispo County sometime after an environmental consultant is selected. Much farther down the timeline, the county Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider Plains Pipelines’ land use permit.