To the consternation of environmentalists and local officials, federal officials said Monday they will allow Exxon Corp. to continue shipping crude oil down the California coast and within 50 miles of the ecologically fragile Channel Islands.
The federal Minerals Management Service is expected to finalize its decision today in a letter to representatives of the Houston-based oil giant, according to J. Lisle Reed, regional director of the federal agency.
"We have looked at this operation from every possible angle and we have come to the honest conclusion that what Exxon is doing doesn't constitute any kind of significant threat to the environment," Reed said. "It really is a very small quantity of crude oil that we are talking about."
However, Reed said the agency will limit the number of voyages Exxon can make--no more than three per month and 24 per year--and will require an administrative review of the shipping operation in July, 1997.
"There are two to three tankers on average transiting the coast each day. Exxon's operation adds to that as many as three tankers a month," Reed said. "It's not really a big deal."
Exxon officials, who have been in discussions with MMS officials since the agency ordered a halt to the shipping operation in March, said they were pleased by the decision.
"We have felt that our development production permit gave us the authority for this all along," Exxon spokesman Bruce Tackett said. "However, we are glad the MMS has reached this decision. The flexibility this gives us as a company is very important."
But while federal officials have given Exxon the green light to resume tanker shipping, the decision angered local environmentalists.
"Once again, those in government charged with being stewards of our environment have dropped the ball," said Cynthia Leake, a spokeswoman for the Ventura County Environmental Coalition. "Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Somehow the oil and gas business always seems to get its way when push comes to shove."
Santa Barbara County officials said they were dismayed by the action and asked federal officials to extend their cease-and-desist order.
"We have told the MMS that we have some real problems with this," said Bill Douros, deputy director of the county Energy Division. "We have told them repeatedly that we do not believe Exxon's permits allow them to tanker. We believe that it is a direct violation of their development and production plan."
Douros said he will update the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on the issue today. Likewise, California Coastal Commission staff members said they are preparing to brief commissioners at Wednesday's meeting in Long Beach.
Although Exxon's crude oil from its Santa Ynez Unit is extracted in federal waters, both Santa Barbara County and the Coastal Commission maintain jurisdiction over how the thick crude is managed once it is piped ashore.
Douros said Exxon must apply to Santa Barbara County and the Coastal Commission to amend the terms of the company's production permits to spell out the details of the shipping operation. Exxon must also certify that the operation is necessary because all overland pipelines are functioning at capacity.
Since October, the company has been shipping crude oil produced at its Santa Ynez facility to a San Francisco Bay Area refinery via overland pipeline.
At the refinery, some of that oil--200,000 barrels or 8.4 million gallons--is pumped aboard the 11-year-old Exxon tanker R/S Baytown and shipped south to Los Angeles Harbor. The ship sails the 400-mile coastline and comes within 50 miles of the Channel Islands.
In October, 1993, Exxon withdrew its application to state and Santa Barbara County officials seeking permission to ship oil through the Santa Barbara Channel. Environmentalists applauded the decision, which company officials said was prompted by market and economic conditions.
But one year later, Exxon resumed the monthly shipping of the Santa Ynez crude to the Los Angeles area with the 780-foot Baytown, a double-bottomed vessel that can accommodate more than twice that amount of cargo.
Environmental activists, who felt victorious when Exxon abandoned its efforts in 1993 and again this spring when the company heeded the cease-and-desist order of March, were frustrated by the federal agency's decision.
"I'm very disappointed, but I'm not surprised," said Robert Sollen, a spokesman for the Ventura/Santa Barbara County Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club. "Over the years, I have come not to expect too much out of the MMS in terms of looking out for the environment."