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Delay in OK on Gas Pipeline Costs Millions, Industry Says

February 09, 1989|From County News Service

Delaying the approval of a controversial gas pipeline between rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel and Chevron's massive processing plant off U.S. 101 in Gaviota has cost the oil industry in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties millions of dollars, according to industry groups.

But that doesn't quell the fears of explosion and of leaks of poison gas among residents in the areas penetrated by the pipeline.

In the middle of the dispute are Santa Barbara County supervisors, who this week again asked for additional technical information on transmission of the deadly hydrogen sulfide gas, which the pipeline would carry.

'Going to Get Sued'

"We're obviously going to get sued no matter what we do," said Supervisor Bill Wallace at a board meeting Monday. Nevertheless, he asserted, "the bottom line is that this plant is going to operate. It's now a question of how to get there."

Chevron was granted a preliminary permit to operate the pipeline in 1985, but misjudged the hydrogen sulfide content of the undersea formations it intended to mine. The company then applied to operate the pipeline with higher levels of the gas, which has the odor of rotten eggs, but the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission last year denied the proposal.

Chevron is appealing that rejection, maintaining that it can operate the pipeline safely at reduced pressures with new techniques.

Safety Margin

Doug Uchikura, Chevron's project manager for the pipeline, told the board Monday that the pipeline is designed to safely handle 10 times the highest concentration of hydrogen sulfide expected. "That represents an extreme margin of safety," he said.

Chevron's $450-million plant has been virtually idle for more than a year, though technologically ready to take huge amounts of oil and gas from three offshore platforms. The company asserts the delays are costing it $500,000 a day.

But those losses don't sway pipeline opponents, who fear instant death or injury if the line ruptures. Eighteen miles of the line run through the coastal Bixby and Hollister ranches, Gaviota State Park and under U.S. 101, and the remaining 10 miles are at the bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel. Chevron has promised an extensive leak-detection system and emergency plan, including sirens if an upset occurs.

Jobs Lost to Delay

Delay is also costing jobs, said representatives from Ventura and Santa Barbara supply companies at Monday's hearing.

A survey of 30 support companies last year indicated that they are losing $1.5 million a month and have laid off at least 100 workers, said Terry Covington of the California Coastal Operators' Group.

In the last two months, Chevron itself has laid off 53 contract employees, leaving a staff of 136.

Milpark Drilling Fluids of Ventura, a Baker-Hughes subsidiary, has laid off six workers employed on Chevron's platforms, said company spokesman Jim Noble. Noble said he is sure the pipeline is safe "because there's too much at stake." Hydrogen sulfide is most dangerous "when you don't know it's there," he added.

Gas Level 3 Times Estimate

The pipeline plan ran into its most serious snags last year, after the county learned that gas from offshore fields would contain up to 20,000 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide, nearly tripling 1984 estimates of 7,000 p.p.m.

Hydrogen sulfide is both toxic and flammable, and can kill when inhaled deeply just once at a concentration of 1,000 p.p.m., experts said, citing OSHA standards at Monday's hearing.

The supervisors delayed a decision until their Feb. 27 meeting, at the earliest.

Opponents of the project have blamed Chevron for the year's delay, contending that the company did not reveal potentially higher hydrogen sulfide content until the plant was nearly finished, nor did it design the plant for higher levels.

Housing Project Issue

The dispute may become an important issue when local governments consider housing projects near pipelines carrying "sour gas," natural gas with substantial quantities of hydrogen sulfide. Such pipelines lace the ground all over California, especially in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

Ken Bornholdt, an attorney representing Bixby Ranch, said Monday: "The genie has been let out of the bottle," and said he wondered if the county would approve up to 500 new residences on Bixby property so close to the pipeline.

During planning commission hearings last fall, state park officials declared they might close Gaviota State Park because of the risk the pipeline would pose to visitors.

But in January, the same officials announced they were satisfied that the pipeline was safe.

"Our experts told us a Chevy was required, and Chevron put in a Rolls-Royce," said Laura Lee Gold, an attorney representing the California Parks and Recreation Department.

But county officials are not as satisfied. Resource Management Director John Patton on Monday summarized the dilemma for the supervisors: "You're facing the classic 'how safe is safe?' question," he told the board.

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