A worker removes oil from the sand at Refugio State Beach

A worker removes oil from the sand at Refugio State Beach in the Santa Barbara Channel, north of Goleta, California one month after a massive oil spill in May 2015.

(Photo: Jae C. Hong/ Associated Press)

'Catastrophe' Averted as Judge Upholds California County's Rejection of Exxon Oil Trucking Plan

"It's time for Exxon to accept that the community won't support drilling and transporting oil in their backyard," said one advocate.

Public health and environmental advocates in Santa Barbara County, California on Wednesday hailed a district court ruling one advocate said placed "the safety of our communities, climate, and coastlines first," as oil giant ExxonMobil's proposal to drive oil tankers down coastal highways was struck down.

Judge Dolly M. Gee in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California upheld the county's 2022 rejection of the company's proposal. Last year the county cited the harm that a potential oil spill would do to biodiversity, water safety, and cultural resources when it refused to allow Exxon to truck oil.

The company sued the county, and late last year a federal judge granted a motion by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), which aimed to intervene in the case on behalf of Indigenous tribes and environmental groups.

The outcome of the case on Wednesday, prohibiting the company from transporting millions of gallons of oil per week, will keep Exxon from moving towards resuming operations on offshore platforms and at a former processing facility, said EDC.

"ExxonMobil's plan to restart its offshore platforms and truck millions of gallons per week through Santa Barbara County is reckless, dangerous, and totally unwelcome by this community," said Linda Krop, chief counsel of group. "Recent oil tanker truck accidents and offshore oil spills show just how dangerous this plan is."

The company aimed to truck the oil on coastal Highway 101 and Route 166, sparking fears of a disaster like the Refugio State Beach oil spill of 2015, which sent more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil into a ravine and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. The spill created a 10-square-mile oil slick that injured and killed wildlife including otters, humpback whales, and brown pelicans, and led to the closure of Exxon's offshore drilling operations.

Gee's ruling was handed down two years after another oil spill near Huntington Beach, which caused oil to seep into a marsh area that is home to more than 80 bird species.

"I'm relieved the judge agreed it was reasonable to deny Exxon's dangerous trucking project. Trucking oil through Santa Barbara County is so obviously risky for the people, wildlife, and coastline," said Liz Jones, an attorney at CBD. "It's time for Exxon to accept that the community won't support drilling and transporting oil in their backyard."

Oil truck accidents are already a problem in California, with 258 trucking incidents reported from 2015-21 along Exxon's proposed route. Eight accidents that have taken place since 2007 have been deadly, killing six people and causing numerous injuries, fires, road closures, and oil spills.

"The next accident is a matter of 'when,' not 'if,' based on oil companies' terrible track record in Santa Barbara County," said Jones. "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."

In 2021, CBD posted a map on social media showing the critical habitats—supporting steelhead trout, sea otters, salamanders, and other wildlife—that lie close to the company's proposed trucking route.

"It's incredible that this project would even be considered," said Michael Lyons, board president of Get Out Oil! "Each tanker truck and its full load of oil is essentially a ticking time bomb that threatens the lives of those on the highways and our environment."

With the district court ruling, said Lyons, "an oil spill catastrophe has been prevented."

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