EDC Claims ExxonMobil’s Proposal to Truck Oil is Dangerous

By Kathryn Parsons, Lauren Lankenau, and Kela Megorden (Environmental Defense Center Interns)

Tasked with the quest to analyze ExxonMobil’s proposal to restart offshore platforms (shut down since the 2015 Plains Pipeline spill that devastated the coastline) and truck oil along our precious coast, we set off on a collective years-long journey riddled with unrest at the thought of a significant increase in the amount of oil tanker trucks in our community.  It truly baffles us that there is a proposition to extract oil, then use trucks—that need oil to move—as a transportation method. It seems like a get one fish hook unstuck by using another fish hook type of situation. With headlines like 105 Freeway Reopens Hours After 2 Are Killed in Fiery Tanker Truck Crash in Hawthorne, or Oil Tanker Crash: “Everything It Touched Was on Fire”, to Two Killed in Head-On Collision, Tanker Explosion on HWY 20 in Sierra, it is a true quandary that this proposal is even on the table. Since the start of our internships at the Environmental Defense Center we have found almost 80 recent tanker truck crashes in California alone.

Let’s Explore The Facts:

  • ExxonMobil proposes to add 70 round-trip truck trips every 24 hours
  • The trucks would travel along Highway 101 and Route 166
  • Each truck will carry 5,040 to 6,720 gallons of oil
  • At least 79 tanker truck crashes have occurred in California in the last 21 years, including 12 in Santa Barbara County
  • These accidents left 56 people injured and 28 people dead
  • Over 100,000 gallons of oil spilled
  • Accidents caused countless hours of commuter traffic and road closures
  • Countless ecosystems impaired by spills

So, Are The Impacts Really Worth It?

We would argue definitely not. The truck routes that ExxonMobil proposes pass schools, the Gaviota Coast, numerous houses, businesses, water systems, preserves, vineyards, and other assorted agricultural areas. The resulting environmental damage from the accidents we’ve found include fires leading to home evacuations, burning of storm drains in the Los Angeles River, oil migrating through storm drains into the San Diego River and adjoining shorelines, burning of hundreds of acres in the Rose Fire, disintegration of roadways, creek and soil contamination, as well as drinking water contamination. Most recently, an oil tanker truck crashed on Route 166, spilling oil into the Cuyama River.

Truck Crashes Aren’t All Preventable

Aside from a mistake on the tanker truck driver’s part, these crashes aren’t always due to human error; we have read of tanker tires blowing out, spontaneous combustion after impact, and unknown reasons causing trucks to overturn. Additionally, the most common causes are other cars losing control, and drunken drivers crashing into tanker trucks. We even found an instance of a tanker truck colliding with a cow, spilling 10,000 gallons of fuel, killing the driver, and knocking out power to 400 people.

Some Crashes To Learn From

The first tanker truck crash we found was in between our neighbors of Carpinteria and Ventura in the year 2000. It shut down both sides of the freeway, spilled 5,000 gallons, and reached the ocean, killing crabs, fish, and birds, forcing a hotel evacuation, and delaying train travel. All of this because the driver fell asleep behind the wheel.

On December 12, 2018, a driver died in a fiery head-on collision. This photo shows Santa Barbara emergency responders inspecting the vehicle involved in the tanker trucker crash on Highway 166 east of Santa Maria. A Ford F-250 pickup truck was eastbound when it drifted into the westbound lanes and into the path of semi tractor-trailer loaded with crude-oil. Oil from the tanker-truck leaked out onto the dirt and the roadway during recovery operations. (Photo by Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

On April 29, 2007, an oil tanker truck crash in the Bay Area snarled the commute of the MacArthur Maze, where several freeways assemble to approach the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco with the cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The truck driver lost control in a curve, hit a guardrail, and flipped the truck onto its side. This led to an explosion and the collapse of Interstate 580 onto some lanes of Interstate 880 below, complicating commutes for months. It was a truly frustrating experience for all in the area.

Fast-forward 10 years and hop back down south to Santa Barbara when another 5,000 gallons of gasoline spilled onto Highway 101. This crash disintegrated the concrete, necessitating the closure and repaving of the freeway during an active wildfire evacuation. The efficiency of evacuation during the Thomas Fire—the largest fire in California history at the time—was severely impacted by this spill. All northbound lanes of Highway 101 were closed into the next day, and evacuees were diverted off the freeway at Turnpike Road, while State Route 154 was closed to through traffic between Santa Barbara and State Route 246 in the Santa Ynez Valley. This was not the best situation to be dealing with when residents were quite literally running for their lives.

Santa Barbara County experienced one of its worst oil tanker accidents on March 21, 2020. A tanker truck on Route 166 overturned down an embankment 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. Three species of special concern included the California red-legged frog, western pond turtle, and arroyo toad.

6,600 gallons of crude oil spilled from a tanker truck accident on HWY 166 spilling into the Cuyama River

The clean-up efforts from the March 21, 2020 oil spill in Cuyama River, due to a tanker truck accident along Highway 166 near Santa Maria. A tanker truck overturned down the embankment, spilling 6, 600 gallons of crude oil. Photo by OSPR.

On April 16, 2020, a tanker truck crashed into the guardrail and center divider near the Arroyo Hondo Bridge on Highway 101. Sixteen gallons of oil spilled onto the roadway and southbound lanes were closed for several hours. The Arroyo Hondo Bridge lays above sensitive habitat and territory of the endangered Steelhead found in the Arroyo Hondo Creek.

This map shows ExxonMobil’s proposed oil tanker truck route overlaid with recent tanker accidents.

The Implications of ExxonMobil’s Proposed Project

Adding 140 tanker truck trips daily to Highway 101 between ExxonMobil’s Gaviota oil processing facility and the Santa Maria Pump Station poses significant public safety and environmental concerns for Santa Barbara County. Not only will the tanker trucks have to travel on windy, gusty roads, but also through the Gaviota Tunnel, the narrow Gaviota Pass, and over the Nojoqui grade. These areas have poor cell reception, making 911 calls difficult. In addition, the roads on either side of the Gaviota Pass straddle a river, meaning spilled oil will impact the waterway and eventually reach the Pacific Ocean.

Adding these trucks to Route 166 as proposed is also extremely dangerous. Cell coverage is also spotty on this road, which is known for having frequent accidents. For this reason, in August 2020, Santa Barbara County staff recommended prohibiting tanker trucks on this road. As County staff stated, this proposal would increase the risk of truck accidents and oil spills. However, the staff position has changed and in their most recent report they are now recommending approval of this dangerous route.

Read the rest of the report at environmentaldefensecenter.org.


Written by EDC

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  1. Makes the 101 sound so unsafe I’m taking the 154 from now on!!!
    Would like to see map with stars showing auto accidents that spilled fuel and created fatalities. Would also like to know how many of the truck accidents were not the trucks fault.

  2. BYZ – You’re really grasping here. You say the EDC (or CDC, which is it?) is “dangerous” because they haven’t solved homelessness. You fail, again, to explain why they are too blame. Saying homelessness is like pollution (it’s not) isn’t an “explanation.” You really are intellectually dishonest and unable to support most of your claims, well none of them on this topic. Consider a new hobby.

  3. PIPELINES NOT TANKER TRUCKS… The Environmentalists got this ALL wrong! Maintained pipelines are so much safer than big rig trucks carrying 6K-8K gallons of product. Not only are you tearing up the already beaten roads and infrastructure, but you are potentially making it easier for the releases of Hazardous Materials into the environment and potentially KILLING motorists in accidents on one of the BLOODEST ROADS in the State HWY 166… It’s INSANE!

  4. EDC is dangerous. Time to defund and disband this long-standing obstructionist operation, who betrays their mission in only selective “environmental” attacks; while letting vagrancy run amok for decades with nary a peep of protest. .

  5. There are far more hazardous things than oil that are transported through our community every day. Just a couple years ago, a gasoline tanker overturned on the 101 in goleta and leaked fuel onto the roadway. Gasoline dissolves pavement and emergency repairs were required. Just imagine what harm gasoline would cause flowing into our waterways. We should prohibit all gasoline and diesel fuel tankers from entering our county! There may be some minor inconvenience as a result, but this change will make us all safer.

  6. Out of control vagrancy, as we have suffered for far too long is a major “environmental assault”. Just like they pretend they are against other forms of pollution. Why has this longstanding vagrancy pollution been ignored by the CDC? CDC’s wins often by procedural legal attrition – obstruct and find legal loopholes so the other side gets lost in the weeds, but does nothing overall to improve the quality of life or economic vitality of the region.

  7. The best and surest way to get rid of Big Oil is to stop using their products. Don’t buy gas and don’t drive a car that derives its power from oil. Quite simple, so Do It! If you don’t want to support Chik-fil-A….don’t buy their chicken. If you don’t want to support heroin delears….don’t buy the heroin. Don’t like the folks who grow the weed…don’t buy the weed. Don’t like the politics of Texas..don’t support Texas. It’s really simple peeps. Either take one, or get off the can (as my father used to say).

  8. Who cares who is at fault? The accidents will happen anyway, and the resulting spills. Is the spill somehow better if the truck driver wasn’t at fault? Does it make it easier to prevent them, human error being what it is? I think not.

  9. STRAY-Thanks for turning statistics into a vision we can readily “see”, feel, and get properly riled about. The Tanker Trucks From Hell. No sarcasm intended…if we can’t kick the fossil fuel habit here in Santa Barbara, where can we?

  10. Pipelines cost. Pipelines age, leak, break, fail inspections, fail out of sight–and, if the likes of Plains and Greka Energy have their way, out of mind as well. In all of extraction history, haven’t oil companies taught us how unteachable they are? And remember who bears the cost of the lesson, over and over…us. The real story is switching oil OFF and clean energy sources ON, not which impossible oil transportation plan a county is willing to suffer and pay for.

  11. I would say that most people I know who are concerned about environmental issues do this in their daily lives. They drive Honda Fits or similar if they have to drive. Imagine if we all drove Civics- that would double the available supply of fossil fuel overnight. But nahh, most Americans aren’t interested in preserving our resources for future generations. Too bad for us.

  12. In reality, research has shown that tanker trucks are extremely safe. That’s why, for example, nuclear fuel rods are transported suspended in water in tankers. In the past nuclear fuel rods for Diablo Canyon (still in operation, according to Wikipedia) traveled in tankers along Hwy 166 to 101, then north to Avila Beach. Nuclear warheads are also transported along our highways in semi tractor trailers, both operations conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE).
    Where do I get my info? Around 40 years ago, I wrote the Transportation of Hazardous Materials chapter of the federal Commercial Driver’s Manual, upon which California based it’s own Commercial Driver’s Manual. As part of that effort, I attended Viking Freight’s two week Hazardous Material course and also visited DoE’s school for the drivers of nuclear warheads at Sandia. Given a choice between pipeline and truck, I greatly favor transportation of oil by truck. Multiple gas delivery trucks travel our highways and streets every day and accidents are rare.
    It saddens me to see ill-informed EDC interns cherry-pick examples to prove a point that in reality runs counter to all research on the topic.

  13. “If trucks are bearing down on you, get on up to the speed limit” — because there are never cars in front of you going below the speed limit on the 101. /// It’s a mystery what motivates RWers to put forth arguments defending corporate greed and pollution no matter how poor those arguments are. They seem determined to try to counter liberal views at every turn, which constantly puts them on the wrong side of truth and humanity.

  14. CW has got it wrong, as always. Environmentalists are opposing these tanker trucks, so they are getting it right. It’s the oil companies that don’t properly maintain the pipelines, resulting in the disaster we had, and it’s the oil companies asking to reopen the oil platforms and truck the oil on the highways.

  15. BYZ – “So no, tanker spills are not more toxic than swimming pool water.” WHAT? Just because pool water may have more “chemicals” than crude oil (not sure that’s even true), but the key is, one is FAR more volatile and highly dangerous to the environment and animals when spilled. How many animals are killed each year from swimming pool water? Does swimming pool water kill hundreds of thousands of marine birds alone each year? How many beaches and other pristine wildlife areas/ecosystems are destroyed by swimming pool water?
    Your comment is mind-blowingly absurd, not surprisingly.

  16. “I struggle with the logic.” — Here, let me help: https://owl.excelsior.edu/argument-and-critical-thinking/logical-fallacies/logical-fallacies-straw-man/ “A straw man fallacy occurs when someone takes another person’s argument or point, distorts it or exaggerates it in some kind of extreme way, and then attacks the extreme distortion, as if that is really the claim the first person is making.”

  17. “The best and surest way to get rid of Big Oil is to stop using their products.” — wrong, as usual. As individual ceasing to use oil products will have no effect on the existence of “Big Oil”–not that getting rid of “Big Oil” is even the goal.

  18. “see where nature’s bounty still struggles to reach out to us.” — I guess it has to fight through the rocks and the plant life that Satan put in its way. // This is right up there with “Swimming pools are full of artificially-produced chemicals. Fossil fuels are made from nature, going back into nature. So no, tanker spills are not more toxic than swimming pool water.” (Which I will offer as a reminder many times in your future.)

  19. Marcel, let me point it out so even you can get it: volume comparison was put on the table; not content or effect of contents. This was a small leak. Run with that anyway you want, but put it down to your own diversion off topic, or your own straw dog you now get to shoot down. Woof.

  20. I get that “Swimming pools are full of artificially-produced chemicals. Fossil fuels are made from nature, going back into nature. So no, tanker spills are not more toxic than swimming pool water.” is wrong in every possible way … it’s a product of a toxic combination of extreme ignorance, extreme intellectual dishonesty, and extreme ideology.

  21. BYZ – “not content or effect of contents.” You’re just lying now. You said, once again:
    “So no, tanker spills are not more toxic than swimming pool water.”
    Those were your words. How do you type with a straight face? For a while I thought you were just joking/trolling whatever, but it’s clear now that you’re convinced you are a) correct, or b) not willing to admit when you are verifiably, obviously, clearly lying or just wrong. Sad.

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