In response to ExxonMobil’s request to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to begin trucking oil on Route 166 and Highway 101, environmental groups across Santa Barbara — including several student groups at UC Santa Barbara — protested against ExxonMobil by marching from the Santa Barbara County Administration to the Santa Barbara News Press on Sept. 24. 

On Sept. 29, the planning commission — in a 3-2 vote — asked its staff to come back with reasons for recommending denial of ExxonMobil’s request. The planning commission will hear the findings of the report on Nov. 3. 

In early 2020, some of these protesting groups and people — many of whom were present at the march — formed a coalition called Exxon, Be Gone. This coalition against ExxonMobil’s initiatives includes the Sunrise Santa Barbara Movement, California Environmental Justice Alliance, Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, UCSB Associated Students Environmental Affairs Board, 350 Santa Barbara, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Defense Center, Food and Water Action, Get Oil Out, Santa Barbara County Action Network, the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation Santa Barbara County Chapter and UCSB External Vice President of Statewide Affairs Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan. 

ExxonMobil’s request came to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission in 2020. The oil corporation hoped to truck oil until they could replace this method with the Plains All American Pipeline for their drilling projects. The pipeline has been non-operational since May 2015, when it leaked into the Santa Barbara Channel.

The oil company’s initial proposition stated that the trucking would end once a pipeline became available or after a seven-year period, depending on which came first. The trucking path would be from the ExxonMobil Las Flores Canyon facility to either the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Pump Station (SMPS) or the Plains Pentland Terminal and would involve 70 trucks per day, according to the most recent environmental impact report (EIR). Each truck would carry 5,040 to 6,720 gallons of oil. 

However, the hearings for the implementation of the trucking path — which were supposed to take place on Sept. 2 and Sept. 9, 2020 — were delayed because of ExxonMobil’s decision to shut down their Santa Maria location in Arroyo Grande by 2023, an obstruction which led to the project’s temporary hiatus. Now, ExxonMobil is back with their trucking request to the Santa Barbara Planning Commission, which will be heard Sept. 29 and Oct. 1. 

Students and community members at the downtown Santa Barbara march pointed to the orange-tinged skies around them — as a result of fires north of Santa Barbara County — as an example of what will happen to the environment should companies like ExxonMobil continue their dependency on fossil fuels. 

“There’s ash in the sky. The sun looks awful. I feel like this is really telling, seeing this backdrop, the signs we’re holding right now, everyone gathered here — it’s just a message on how bad climate change has gotten,” second-year cultural anthropology major and protest attendee Emily Zomoroudi said. 

The protestors marched through downtown Santa Barbara chanting, “No more Exxon, no more oil. Keep the carbon in the soil,” “Climate change is not a lie. Do not let our planet die,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, ExxonMobil’s got to go.” 

According to third-year environmental studies major and Environmental Affairs Board (EAB) Co-Chair Kat Lane, the Society of Fearless Grandmothers Santa Barbara — who coordinated the protest — reached out to environmental advocacy student groups at UCSB for their help in demonstrating against ExxonMobil’s trucking proposal. Lane and other students then sent information on the protest to professors teaching classes on environmental studies and advertised the protest on social media. 

“We’re out here today not only because oil is going to be detrimental to our environment, but also because this is a water issue. It’s an issue about people getting access to clean water, to clean food, it’s about respecting the Chumash indigenous wishes,” Lane said.  

Fourth-year biochemistry and environmental studies double major and EAB member Soham Ray said that the EAB has been keeping track of EIRs and general updates with ExxonMobil’s proposal. Ray said this project is dangerous for the county in multiple ways. 

“The trucking project in general is dangerous for Santa Barbara, for the Santa Barbara locals, and also, the youth. Our community [and] the world should be focused on taking climate change seriously, and making sure that companies that contributed the most to this problem like Exxon[Mobil] don’t continue to pull oil out of the ground and burn it down just to meet their bottom line,” Ray said. 

Ray added that he hopes big corporations and politicians hear students’ messages and outcry against ExxonMobil’s trucking plan. 

“Students are serious because this is our future and we have to care about it. We can’t just allow big corporations or politicians — like the planning commission — decide on if we get to have a liveable future or not. It’s up to us to communicate to [big corporations and politicians] and help them understand that this is our future we’re fighting for,” he said.  

Nadia Abushanab, UCSB 2020 alumna, was also at the protest as an organizer with the Santa Barbara County Action Network. Abushanab said that there are three primary points the action network hopes to convey. 

“The first is that climate change is real, and we cannot afford to drill any more oil … The second one is that an oil spill is a real possibility that could happen. In the last five years, there have been five oil spills on the route they want to truck oil on, and it’s right next to the river. We can’t afford to harm our ecosystem, our marine life or wildlife,” Abushanab said. “The third thing is that that road is very dangerous. So much so that the staff [report] actually recommended against it in their recommendation last year.” 

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), a group within the coalition, has been providing “substantive analysis of the scientific information, [and] the legal analysis on the technical information,” according to Exxon, Be Gone member and Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center Linda Krop. Krop expressed concern over the initial EIR, which only asked that trucking be suspended during rainy periods. 

The EDC researched accidents in Santa Barbara County and California involving oil trucking from 2000 and discovered accidents “involving explosions, spills [and] injuries.” The EDC noted that many of the accidents were the result of other cars crashing into the truck, and not the other way around. Throughout all of their research, they discovered around 70 accidents involving the rain. Krop emphasized that just because there was rain in a few accidents, that doesn’t mean that the weather was “necessarily related” to the cause or impact of the accident. 

The original staff report for the SBCPC, however, went further to then recommend that Route 166 be excluded from the trucking request. Unlike the EIR, the report looked at the likelihood of accidents on Route 166 specifically and saw that the likelihood of an accident on this route is greater than what the EIR calculated. This is because the EIR used national averages for their analysis of likelihood of accidents, instead of accidents on Route 166 specifically. The most recent staff report, however, does not ask for Route 166 to be excluded. 

The EDC recently published a blog post outlining the dangers of allowing ExxonMobil to truck oil in Santa Barbara County, which explained that there have been at least 79 tanker crashes in California during the last 21 years. The accidents have resulted in the death of 28 people and the injuries of 56. Over 100,000 gallons of oil were spilled leading to the impairment of several ecosystems.  

The EDC also pointed out in the blog post that there was an oil spill as recently as March 21, 2020 where a tanker truck on Route 166 was overturned “causing 6,600 gallons of crude oil to spill into the Cuyama River, ten miles away from Twitchell Dam and reservoir. The spill harmed wildlife, as several mallard ducks died and other animals, including turtles and birds, were rescued and cleaned up.”

The Nexus will continue reporting on the county’s decision regarding a potential, new trucking plan for ExxonMobil in Santa Barbara County. 

A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the Sept. 23, 2021 print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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Atmika Iyer
Atmika Iyer (she/her/hers) is the County News Editor for the 2021-22 school year. She's a lover of loud music, loud laughs and loud prints.