Oil pipeline planned even as California moves away from gas

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A proposed oil pipeline in California that could allow ExxonMobil to resume production on three offshore platforms is expected to enter a critical phase of government review next year.

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LOS ANGELES — A proposal to replace an oil pipeline that was shut down in 2015 due to California’s worst coastal leak in 25 years continues despite government review, even as the state bans gas-powered vehicles and oil drilling. moving in the direction of.

The $300 million proposal considered by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline is expected to enter a critical phase next year, as new investigations come under way on the state’s oil industry after an offshore pipeline collapsed in October near Huntington Beach. . That breakup released at least 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of crude oil that closed beaches and had a deadly effect on marine life, with a hypothetical surf break in the world.

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To the north, the 123-mile (198 km) Plains Pipeline travels along the coastline near Santa Barbara before turning inland. It is buried and nearly invisible for most of its length in the central part of the state, up to Kern County. For decades it was a vital link between off-shore oil platforms and on-shore processing plants, with an average shipment of 1.8 million gallons (6.9 million litres) per day.

California Democratic US Sen. Alex Padilla opposed the proposal, giving a clear warning of future risks.

“We have seen time and again how damaging offshore oil spills are to our coastal ecosystem as well as our outdoor recreation and tourism economies,” Padilla said in a statement. “We must not risk repeating history by rebuilding or restarting the plains pipeline.”

Plains spokesman Brad Leone said the company safely transported 90 billion gallons (341 billion liters) across North America last year. “Ground is committed to designing, building and maintaining these lines in a safe, reliable manner,” he said.

The project faces several hurdles, including a federal class-action lawsuit from property owners who say the grounds do not have the right to use an existing easement for a new pipeline. Lead trial attorney Barry Capello said the project would rip out vineyards and coastal farmland and that “our clients never signed up for it.”

Sean Hyatt, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said the company’s motivation to revive the pipeline is clear.

“They make money on that,” Hyatt said. “The price of oil is not going down.”

He said the price of a barrel of oil could reach $100 next year. It’s now about $77.

Documents filed by Plains with Santa Barbara County say the replaced pipeline, though smaller than its predecessor, could hold up to about 1.7 million gallons (6.3 million liters) a day. At current prices, that oil would be worth more than $3 million a day, or potentially more than $1 billion per year, although pipelines often don’t run at full capacity.

Oil has been mined in California since the 19th century, but the project is debated as the state acknowledges its horrific history with fossil fuels. Climate change is expanding the threat of wildfires, droughts and tidal waves, and the state has positioned itself as a global leader in renewable energy and pioneering policies aimed at slowing the planet’s warming.

California – itself the world’s fifth-largest economy – plans to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035 and end oil production a decade later. The recent spill in Huntington Beach renewed calls to stop all drilling off the coast.

The Plains pipeline will essentially be a symbol of that struggle: the desire for plastic versus increasing political pressure to fuel cars, heat buildings, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Biden administration – which recently auctioned off vast oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico – is facing the same dilemma.

California’s oil and gas industry directly and indirectly supports more than 365,000 jobs and has an annual output of more than $150 billion, a 2017 study of statistics estimated. Nationally, the industry supported about 17 million jobs in 2020, according to a report by the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, a trade group. California ranked second in direct industry employment with about 75,000 jobs, although it lagged far behind Texas, the nation’s leading producer, with about 350,000 jobs.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has spoken out about the economic challenges of retiring the industry, even as it promotes a greener future for the state. His office declined to comment on the field project, noting that it was being reviewed by government agencies.

Environmentalists have pointed to the dangers of earthquakes along with the risk of the outbreak in the debate against a new line.

California is best known as the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, and a watershed event was a massive one off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969. Despite that history and the move to green energy, the Newsom administration has resisted taking a strong stance against new fossil-fuel projects, said Julie Teal Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that runs the Plains Pipeline. opposes.

The state’s decision on the project is “an opportunity for California to talk” on weaning itself from oil, she said.

The Plains Pipeline was last in service on May 19, 2015, when a fractured section above land and running west of Santa Barbara, sending 140,000 gallons (529,957 liters) of oil to a state coastline and at sea.

Federal inspectors found that planes operators operating from a Texas control room more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) away had set off an alarm indicating a leak and, inadvertently a spill occurred, after the shutdown. Started bleeding line again.

Plains apologized for the spill and paid for the cleanup. Fields was later fined more than $3 million. The cleanup cost was $100 million, and the company’s report for 2017 estimated the cost at $335 million, not including lost revenue.

A key step in the review of the proposed pipeline – a complex environmental study conducted by Santa Barbara County – is expected by spring. About a dozen federal, state and local agencies are involved in the consideration of the project, first proposed in 2017.

It will largely snake along the existing route. The new line – technically two connected pipelines, like its predecessor – crosses environmentally sensitive areas including Carrizo Plains National Monument and slices of the Los Padres National Forest.

Three ExxonMobil platforms that depended on the line have been closed since the spill. ExxonMobil has proposed establishing an interim trucking route to transport oil, which would allow defunct offshore platforms to resume production. In a split vote in early November, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission urged county supervisors to reject the company’s proposal.

“Trucking is the only option to transport crude to markets until a pipeline is available,” ExxonMobil spokeswoman Julie L. King said in a statement.

Environmental groups warn that decades-old platforms pose a risk different from aging devices; ExxonMobil says the platform has been maintained in a “safe, protected condition” during the shutdown.

Also on issue: the existing line and its replacement will pass through several earthquake-prone areas. According to an advisory study conducted for Plains, the pipeline will cross 10 potentially active faults as well as a dozen fingers of the active San Andreas fault zone.

“Parts of the pipeline may be subject to intense seismic shaking, and some areas may experience ground breaking in the event of a significant earthquake,” the study found, recommending safety measures that include lines with protective foam. cover is included.

Bob Nelson, who is the chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, said he would wait for a detailed environmental report next year before making a decision, but was encouraged by what he has seen so far. He said the grounds could have sought repair of the existing pipeline, but instead wants to build a new line to modern safety standards.

“It means a job,” Nelson said. With continued demand for oil, even as the state has turned away from fossil fuels, “I think we must find a way to distribute it safely in an environmentally friendly … fashion.”

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