A new 124-mile oil pipeline is planned on the Central Coast. Here’s what you need to know

Plains All American Pipeline has applied for permits to rebuild a 124-mile pipeline across the Central Coast of California, a project that would enable ExxonMobil to reopen offshore production that stopped after Plains’ existing pipe caused an oil spill near Santa Barbara in 2015.

In 2018, Plains was found guilty of several crimes including a felony in connection to the Refugio Oil Spill, for failing to properly maintain the line, failing to inform emergency response agencies about the spill in a timely fashion and for killing animals.

The proposal to build a new pipeline has raised the hackles of environmentalists critical of the company’s failure to maintain the existing pipe. They’re also poised to fight oil infrastructure because of climate change and the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore drilling with federal leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Oil industry representatives say the project would bring increased stability to local refineries and contribute to domestic oil production and create construction jobs.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is the Plains pipeline?

The new Plains pipeline was designed to transport crude oil produced in the Outer Continental Shelf in Santa Barbara Channel to onshore refineries in California for processing. The new line would mostly run along the route of the existing pipeline through Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties.

If the pipeline is not permitted and approved, Plains officials said the Houston-based company would improve the existing line to meet state-required improvements for operation.

Plains says the project will create 400 temporary construction jobs for 12 to 18 months and 10 permanent jobs to operate the pipeline. In addition, Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery is down between 10 and 20 employees due to the pipeline being shut down.

Construction is expected to begin in the summer of 2021 to bring the pipeline into operation in the summer of 2022.

Public hearings to prepare environmental review documents are scheduled to begin in February, with the draft environmental impact statement released in the summer of 2019. The Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County boards of supervisors could consider the permits as soon as 2020.

The existing pipeline was shut after the Refugio Oil Spill

The existing 30-year-old Plains pipeline was shut down after it corroded and spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude off Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara on May 19, 2015, resulting in the death of hundreds of sea birds and marine mammals.

The pipeline and three of ExxonMobil’s offshore platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel — called Heritage, Harmony and Hondo — have been idle since the spill.

Oil from the Plains All American Pipeline spill in May 2015 fouled the shore of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County. The pipeline is connected to Platform Holly in the Santa Barbara Channel. Noozhawk.com

“We regret what happened back in 2015. It was a devastating thing for the community,” Steve Greig, director of government affairs for Plains All American Pipeline, said to The Tribune during an open house Wednesday in San Luis Obispo County. “We want to replace the line that was there with a newer line with better safety features and improved design features.”

The new steel pipe would vary in diameter from 12 to 16 inches, replacing a larger 24-inch to 30-inch diameter pipe, a reduction in capacity. The new pipe would have 49 valves, nearly double the number in the original pipe and twice as many pump stations to reduce the pressure.

Critics point to the company’s track record as a reason to reject the proposal.

“I’m sorry that people don’t trust our company,” Greig said. He said the company is going through a very stringent permitting process and will be reviewed by dozens of agencies. “I would hope that the people would trust those agencies.”

The company has not said what went wrong with the existing pipeline to cause the spill, nor whether it met state and local safety requirements when the pipe corroded, citing pending litigation.

It’s designed for offshore oil

Plains calls it the “Lines 901 and 903 Replacement Project” and it would transport offshore crude oil from the Las Flores Pump Station west of Goleta to an existing delivery point at Pentland in Kern County.

Some of the oil would be diverted through an existing pipeline to the Phillips 66 refinery in Nipomo. From there, it would travel to Bay Area refineries where it would be further refined into gasoline, jet fuel and diesel.

Opponents of the project want to block it to prevent more offshore oil drilling.

About 30 protesters gathered outside a January 2018 open house in Arroyo Grande, including Andrew Christie, director of the local Sierra Club chapter.

offshore platform.jpg
Exxon’s oil platforms off Santa Barbara County were shut after the attached onshore pipeline ruptures and spilled oil on Refugio State Beach in 2015. This photo by Drew Bird at drewbirdphoto.com was commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity, which is campaigning against plans to reopen the platforms and transport the crude via truck or pipeline across the Central Coast. Drew Bird Courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity

“People are opposed to this pipeline for a number of reasons,” Christie said. “One of them is the fact that it will resurrect several of Exxon’s offshore oil platforms, which have been closed since the pipeline rupture in 2015, which was the fault of this same company. They now want to rebuild that pipeline and take another shot at it.

“But the larger danger is those offshore platforms coming back into operation at the same time the Trump Administration is promising to lift the five-year moratorium and put the entire coast of California up for grabs for new oil leases,” he said.

Greig said that the new pipeline proposal is independent of Trump’s plans to expand offshore leases.

Where the pipeline would go

The 124-mile pipeline would run 73 miles through Santa Barbara County, 37 miles through San Luis Obispo County and 14 miles through Kern Counties. It would mostly follow the path of the existing pipeline, except in the Buellton area.

Around 100 miles of that pipeline would run through private property. Plains will likely have to renegotiate contracts with more than 100 landowners or use eminent domain to secure the right-of-way.

The remainder of the pipeline would travel through Los Padres National Forest, Chimineas Ranch, Carrizo Plain National Monument, Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Gaviota State Park. Some of those areas include endangered species habitat.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com