Oil Demand, Climate Change clash In California Pipeline Plan

A plan to repair an oil pipeline that was shut down in 2015 after triggering California’s largest coastal leak in 25 years is making its way through the government approval process, even as the state pushes toward prohibiting gas-powered cars and oil drilling.

The Houston-based firm’s $300 million plan is being considered. Plains The All American Pipeline is set to enter a key phase next year, at a time when the state’s oil sector is under heightened scrutiny following an offshore pipeline rupture in October near Huntington Beach. This burst spewed at least 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of crude, closing beaches and killing sea life along one of the world’s most famous surf breakers.

Further north, the Plains pipeline, which is 123 miles (198 kilometers) long, goes along the coast at Santa Barbara before heading inland. It’s subterranean and practically undetectable for much of its length until it reaches Kern County in the state’s center. It served as a critical connection between oil rigs off the coast and processing factories on land for decades, with daily exports averaging 1.8 million gallons (6.9 million liters).

California Democratic U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla opposes the measure, warning of potential consequences.

“We’ve witnessed how detrimental offshore oil spills are to our coastal ecosystems, as well as our outdoor recreation and tourist sectors,” Padilla said in a statement. “By reconstructing or restarting the Plains pipeline, we risk repeating history.”

According to Plains spokesperson Brad Leone, the firm successfully moved 90 billion gallons (341 billion liters) across North America last year. “Plains is dedicated to planning, building, and maintaining these lines in a safe and dependable manner,” he stated.

The project faces multiple obstacles, including a federal class-action lawsuit filed by property owners who claim Plains does not have the authority to use existing easements for a new pipeline. The proposal will destroy vineyards and seaside ranches, according to lead trial attorney Barry Cappello, and “our clients never signed up for it.”

According to Shon Hiatt, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, the company’s desire to restart the pipeline is clear.

“They earn money off of it,” Hiatt explained. “The price of oil is not going to fall.”

He predicted that the price of a barrel of oil may reach $100 by next year. It’s presently around $77.

According to documents filed by Plains with Santa Barbara County, the replacement pipeline, albeit smaller than its predecessor, has the potential to flow approximately 1.7 million gallons (6.3 million liters) each day. At present pricing, that much oil is worth more than $3 million per day, or possibly more than $1 billion per year, even if pipelines are rarely used to their full capacity.

FILE - In this May 21, 2015, file photo, workers prepare an oil containment boom at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., two days after an oil pipeline ruptured, polluting beaches and killing hundreds of birds and marine mammals. A proposal to replace a pipeline near Santa Barbara that was shut down in 2015 after causing California's worst coastal oil spill in 25 years is inching through a government review, even as the state moves toward banning gas-powered vehicles and oil drilling. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Oil has been pumped in California since the nineteenth century, but the project is being disputed as the state confronts its tumultuous relationship with fossil fuels. Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires, drought, and tidal surges, and the state has positioned itself as a global leader in renewable energy and pioneering laws to curb global warming.

California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, aims to phase out new gas-powered vehicles and trucks by 2035 and phase out oil production a decade later. The latest leak in Huntington Beach has reignited calls to prohibit all offshore drilling.

The Plains pipeline will undoubtedly become a symbol of this conflict: the yearning for oil to run automobiles, heat houses, and produce plastics vs rising political pressure to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The Biden administration, which just auctioned off massive oil and gas assets in the Gulf of Mexico, is confronted with the same quandary.

According to one assessment of 2017 statistics, California’s oil and gas sector directly and indirectly supports over 365,000 people and has an annual output of more than $150 billion. According to a trade association called the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, the sector will sustain approximately 17 million employment in the United States by 2020. California ranked second in direct industry employment, with around 75,000 jobs, trailing Texas, the nation’s biggest producer, which had almost 350,000 employees.

Even as he favors a greener future for the state, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has spoken about the economic hurdles of retiring the sector. His administration declined to comment on the Plains proposal, citing the fact that it is being reviewed by federal bodies.

Environmentalists have argued against a new line by citing the potential of spills as well as earthquakes.

The contemporary environmental movement was born in California, and a watershed event was a major spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. Despite this history and the shift toward green energy, the Newsom administration has been hesitant to take a strong stance against new fossil-fuel projects, according to Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that opposes the Plains pipeline.

According to her, the state’s decision on the project “is a chance for California to walk the walk” in terms of weaning itself off of oil.

The Plains pipeline was shut down on May 19, 2015, when a damaged piece above ground west of Santa Barbara collapsed, spilling 140,000 gallons (529,957 liters) of oil over a state beach and into the ocean.

Plains workers working from a Texas control center more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) away switched off an alarm that would have warned a leak and, oblivious of a spill, restarted the hemorrhage line after it had shut down, according to federal inspectors.

Plains apologized and agreed to pay for the cleaning. Plains was eventually penalized more than $3 million. The cleanup cost $100 million, and a business assessment from 2017 placed the spill’s expenses at $335 million, not considering lost income.

A sophisticated environmental assessment done by Santa Barbara County is scheduled to be completed by spring, which is a critical stage in the approval of the planned pipeline. A dozen federal, state, and municipal entities are involved in the initiative, which was initially suggested in 2017.

It would mostly follow the present route. The new route, which is essentially two linked pipes like its predecessor, passes through environmentally sensitive regions such as the Carrizo Plains National Monument and the Los Padres National Forest.

Since the incident, three ExxonMobil platforms that relied on the line have been shut down. ExxonMobil suggested setting up interim transportation routes to carry oil, allowing the inactive offshore installations to begin production. The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission encouraged county supervisors to reject the company’s plan in a split vote in early November.

“Until a pipeline is available, trucking is the sole option for transporting oil to markets,” ExxonMobil spokeswoman Julie L. King said in a statement.

Environmental organizations fear that the decades-old platforms represent a distinct risk from deteriorating equipment; ExxonMobil claims that the platforms have been kept in a “safe, conserved state” when shut down.

Also in question: the present line and its replacement would pass through several earthquake-prone zones. The pipeline would span ten potentially active faults as well as a dozen fingers of the active San Andreas Fault Zone, according to a consultant’s report performed for Plains.

“In the case of a severe earthquake, portions of the pipeline might be susceptible to extreme seismic shaking, and certain regions could undergo ground rupture,” the research said, proposing safety precautions such as covering the line with protective foam.

The chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, Bob Nelson, said he would wait for further environmental evaluations next year before making a decision, but he was encouraged by what he has seen thus far. Plains might have attempted to fix the current pipeline, but instead choose to build a new line to modern safety requirements.

“What it implies is that there will be employment,” Nelson explained. With a continued demand for oil, even as the state shifts away from fossil fuels, “I think we should find a means to securely distribute it in an environmentally benign… form,” she says.

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