Jury finds pipeline company guilty in Refugio Oil Spill off Santa Barbara Coast
After a four-month trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, a jury last week found oil pipeline company Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. (Plains) guilty of one felony and eight misdemeanor counts in the Refugio Oil Spill of 2015 that fouled miles of coast.
By Dan Bacher
The jurors found the company guilty of a felony for failing to properly maintain its dangerous, highly-pressurized pipeline that led to the discharge of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, killing and injuring large numbers of birds, sea mammals and other wildlife and fish.
The spill resulted in a closure of many beaches and a large swatch of ocean waters to the public, along with a closure of recreational and commercial fishing in the impacted waters, as emergency response agencies rescued wildlife and cleaned up the crude oil released during the pipeline failure.
Plains was also found guilty of eight misdemeanor charges in People v. Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. These include one count of failing to timely call emergency response agencies following this catastrophic oil spill; six counts of killing marine mammals, protected sea birds, and other marine life; and one count of violating a county ordinance prohibiting oil spills, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
“Engaging in this kind of reckless conduct is not just irresponsible—it’s criminal,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “Today’s verdict should send a message: if you endanger our environment and wildlife, we will hold you accountable. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue prosecuting corporate negligence and willful ignorance to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Santa Barbara County is frequently referred to as Paradise,” said Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley. “The visual crown jewel of our paradise is our beaches and mountains. This spill killed our marine life, harmed not just our beaches and ocean but also our businesses. The Santa Barbara County and California Attorney General’s Team that prosecuted this case were relentless in seeking justice for our people, our animals and our environment; they deserve our deepest appreciation.”
“As the state’s law enforcement agency charged with protecting California’s fish and wildlife resources and lead for oil spill response, we take our responsibilities seriously,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. “The integrated effort of California’s wildlife officers, the Office of the Attorney General and the Santa Barbara County District Attorney produced a good outcome here in response to one of the state’s worst spills in decades.”
Plains issued a statement Friday evening, noting that the company “continues to accept full responsibility for the impact of the accident” and “intends to fully evaluate and consider all of our legal options.” Here is the full statement:
“Plains is pleased that (i) our employee was dismissed before trial began; (ii) 37 of the initial 46 charges against the company were either dismissed by the judge or resulted in acquittals or deadlocks by the jury; and (iii) in particular, that the jury did not find any knowing misconduct by Plains with respect to the operation of Line 901.
“Of the nine counts of conviction, eight were misdemeanors, consisting of one count relating to a 25-minute delayed reporting, and seven counts under California’s strict liability misdemeanor statutes (six animal takings counts and one discharge count).
“Plains’ operations with respect to Line 901 met and/or exceeded applicable legal and industry standards, and accordingly, we believe that the jury erred in its verdict on one count where applicable California laws allowed a conviction under a negligence standard.
“We intend to fully evaluate and consider all of our legal options with respect to the trial and resulting jury decision announced today.
“Plains continues to accept full responsibility for the impact of the accident. We are committed to doing the right thing. The verdict reflected no knowing wrongdoing by Plains or our employees with respect to the operation of Line 901, and the testimony established our comprehensive cleanup effort.
“Numerous witnesses testified that Plains did everything possible to return areas impacted by the 2015 oil release to conditions as good as or better than before the release.”
The company is set to be sentenced on December 13.
On May 19, 2015, the highly-pressurized pipeline operated by Plains to transport crude oil ruptured on shore just north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, bringing back memories of the disastrous Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 that helped spark the modern environmental movement.
“Evidence presented at trial demonstrated that over 140,000 gallons of crude oil were released from the pipeline, spilling crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and spreading across coastal beaches,” the AG’s Office reported.
Testimony at the trial also revealed that over 100,000 gallons of crude oil were never recovered. Local, state and federal agencies led efforts to protect natural habitats, including marine protected areas, and to try to address the residual hazardous materials remaining along the coast.
Immediately after the spill, the Attorney General’s Office and the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office began a multi-agency criminal investigation, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, acting as the lead investigating agency.
On May 16, 2016, a grand jury indicted Plains on 46 counts, including four felony and 42 misdemeanor charges: www.alamedamagazine.com/….
The matter was scheduled for trial in early 2018. “After more than three weeks devoted to the selection of jurors and hearings on additional pre-trial motions filed by Plains, opening statements were delivered on May 14, 2018. Jurors deliberated for six days before returning their verdicts,” the A.G.’s Office said.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the spill shut down seven offshore drilling platforms that were served by the pipeline, Line 901. Plains has applied to build a new pipeline in the same location. ExxonMobil is also seeking permits to transport oil by tanker trucks so it can restart its three offshore platforms.
“Plains’ criminal negligence caused this devastating oil spill and we can’t give it a second chance to spill again,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to get dirty, dangerous drilling out of our oceans, out of our coastal areas and out of our state.”
Monsell noted that Santa Barbara and at least 64 over California cities and counties formally oppose the Trump administration’s current proposal to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and other U.S. oceans. Recent public opinion polling shows that 69 percent of Californians oppose new offshore drilling.
However, the Trump administration proposal to open new offshore leases in federal waters is just one part of the problem. While Governor Jerry Brown has called Trump’s federal offshore oil drilling short-sighted and reckless, a new website set up by Consumer Watchdog — www.BrownvTrumpOilMap.com— shows that Brown controls four times more oil wells in state waters than those Trump controls in federal waters.
Offshore wells in state waters controlled by the Brown Administration total 5460, versus 1429 offshore wells in federal waters controlled by the Trump administration. Federal waters are those three nautical miles or more off California’s coast.
Of the state wells, 2028 are active; 1336 are production wells, while the rest are support wells like wastewater disposal and water flood/steam flood/observation, etc, according to Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance. The federal offshore wells include 702 wells listed as active.
Hundreds of these wells in state waters are new ones approved over the last 7 years by the Brown administration. Brown’s oil and gas regulators approved 238 new offshore oil wells in state waters under existing leases off Los Angeles and Ventura counties from 2012 to 2016 alone. That’s an increase of 17 percent in just four years, according to data released in a report issued by Fractracker Alliance in February 2017. To read the complete report, go to: www.fractracker.org/…
As Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, said in the Nation magazine on August 29, 2018, “Brown’s administration has approved about 20,000 of them (total oil and gas wells). Offshore, where he has refused to close down existing leases, Sacramento has permitted four times more wells than the federal government has allowed in the deeper waters it controls.” More information: www.thenation.com/...).
It gets worse. In one of the biggest and most ironic stories regarding the Refugio Oil Spill, the head of the oil industry trade association that lobbies for the Plains All American Pipeline corporation is the very same “marine guardian” who chaired the panel that created the so-called “marine protected areas” that were fouled by the spill.
“Plains All American, the owner of the pipeline, is a member of the Western States Petroleum Association,” proclaimed Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), in her blogpost responding to the spill in May 2015.
In an apparent conflict of interest, Reheis-Boyd served as the chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called marine “protected areas” (MPAs) in Southern California, including four MPAs being fouled by the spill.
Four “marine protected areas” created under Reheis-Boyd — the Goleta Slough, Campus Point, Naples and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Areas — were imperiled by the oil spill that started at Refugio State Beach.
She also served on the task forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast, and North Coast from 2004 to 2012, as well as on a federal marine protected areas panel from 2003 to 2014. She served on these panels as the oil industry was fracking off the Southern California Coast.
Meanwhile, Plains All American CEO Greg Armstrong raked in more than $5 million in compensation in 2014 and was guaranteed $29 million to $87 million in golden parachute cash despite the fact that oil from a rupture in his company’s shoddy pipeline polluted the beaches and ocean waters for 9 miles off the Santa Barbara County coastline.
Big Oil is the biggest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento — and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the biggest and most powerful lobbying organization. Big Oil, along with corporate agribusiness, developers, big water agencies, timber companies, and other Big Money interests, has captured the regulatory apparatus in California.