County Panel Approves Rail Expansion In Columbia Gorge Despite Oil-Train Controversy
By Emily Schwing, September 27, 2016
A county planning commission has given its approval to a rail expansion in the same stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where a Union Pacific oil train derailed and burst into flames.
The derailment in June resulted in an oil spill that contaminated groundwater. It also galvanized opposition to increased oil train traffic in the Northwest.
The Wasco County Planning commission voted Monday to approve the rail expansion through the city of Mosier. That’s after a motion to deny the application failed to draw support from a majority on the panel. The railroad wants to increase the length of trains carrying oil and other freight through the gorge. It also says the track project will ease rail congestion and reduce wait times for motorists at crossings.
The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Gorge says the rail expansion puts Mosier and the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area at further, unnecessary risk.
Correction: Sept. 28, 2016. Union Pacific wants to increase the length of trains carrying oil and other freight through the Columbia River Gorge. An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated Union Pacific has said it is seeking rail improvements to increase the number of trains.
Repost from The Tribune, San Luis Obispo CA [Editor: Significant quote: “Peschong — who has said he supports the Phillips 66 proposal — said Monday that if elected, he would not vote on the project. ‘I would recuse myself because that’s the right thing to do,’ he said in a phone interview.” – RS]
Candidate John Peschong’s firm received money from Phillips 66
By Cynthia Lambert, September 26, 2016, 9:02PM
Before John Peschong was a candidate for San Luis Obispo County supervisor representing the Paso Robles area, his political consulting and public affairs firm received $262,313 from Phillips 66, an oil company with a controversial oil-by-rail plan that’s expected to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Environmental advocates have recently charged that the money is proof that Peschong would not be able to be impartial on the project. But Peschong — who has said he supports the Phillips 66 proposal — said Monday that if elected, he would not vote on the project.
“I would recuse myself because that’s the right thing to do,” he said in a phone interview.
Peschong faces Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin in the Nov.8 election. Both have said they would support Phillips 66’s proposal to modify its Nipomo Mesa refinery to receive crude oil by rail if safety requirements are met, but Martin has expressed concerns about environmental issues and requested the proposal come back to the Paso Robles City Council for an update and review at an October meeting.
“I think it’s worth looking into and taking a second look at,” Martin said Monday. “We have had more incidents on the rails than we had a year ago.”
The Phillips 66 plan is set to return to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission on Oct.5 for its eighth hearing. Last Thursday, commissioners started to debate various conditions to approve the project but did not reach a decision.
Their decision is likely to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which concerns some environmental advocates who worry that should the commission approve the project, the decision would stand if the supervisors reach a 2-2 deadlock.
But assistant county counsel Tim McNulty said that’s not the case. Even if the Planning Commission approves the project and it is appealed, he said, the supervisors would still need three votes to certify the environmental documents and move the project forward.
Two speakers last Thursday either alluded to Peschong or mentioned him by name.
“I want to stress how important your decision is today,” Valerie Love of the Center for Biological Diversity told the commission, adding that one of the supervisor candidates might have to recuse himself. “Please make the right decision now and deny the project.”
Peschong said he made a decision on his own not to vote on the project.
He said he’s been forthright about the fact that his firm has done work for energy and oil-related entities, and he has listed Phillips66 as one of Meridian Pacific’s customers on his Form 700, a statement of economic interests he filed as a supervisor candidate in March.
Peschong said Meridian Pacific had a contract for consulting services with Phillips66 in 2015, which ended in the earlier part of 2016. The firm has worked for the oil company in the state and San Luis Obispo County, including the rail spur project. Peschong did not know how much his firm had received from Phillips66 for work done in 2016.
Phillips 66 listed the payment to Meridian Pacific on a document called “2015 Other Political Giving.” It was the largest such contribution given to a company or an organization on the list by more than $160,000.
Phillips 66 officials did not explain why the payment for consulting services was listed in connection with politically related requests. In an email, company spokesman Dennis Nuss said that Phillips66 contracted with Meridian Pacific until Aug.1.
“Meridian provided public affairs consulting initially through partner John Peschong, and beginning January 2016, with other members of the firm,” Nuss wrote.
To date, Peschong has not received any campaign contributions from Phillips 66, a review of his campaign finance statements show. He did receive $180 from Jim Anderson, maintenance manager at the Nipomo Mesa refinery, earlier this year.
However, Peschong’s income from Phillips66 might not prevent him from voting on the project, as long as that money was not received in the previous 12months.
In addition, California courts have not been consistent in ruling on whether a candidate for public office should recuse himself if he or she has taken a position on a project or issue while campaigning, McNulty said.
“When we bring on a new supervisor, we advise them about this part of the case law and advise them that one of their roles is to sit as a quasi-judicial decider of fact and that there’s a need to be fair and impartial in doing that,” McNulty said.
Still, opponents of the rail project wonder if Peschong would hold to his word.
“The choice of a public official to recuse himself from voting on a project is largely a voluntary matter, meaning that if the theoretical moment arrives when the Phillips66 project comes before the board and Mr. Peschong is on it, he would be free to change his mind and decide there is no appearance of a conflict of interest,” Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote in an email.
“A narrow reading of the statutes on conflict of interest and recusal could support the claim that if the money paid to his firm was not received from Phillips in anticipation of his running for office, there’s no conflict,” he added.
Peschong said that if he’s elected in November, he would retain his ownership in Meridian Pacific but not do any work in San Luis Obispo County.
Grant Cooke: CBR permit denied and new Green Inudstrial Revolution developments impact Benicia
By Grant Cooke, September 22, 2016
History, or at least precedence, was made Tuesday evening when the Benicia City Council denied Valero a land use permit to bring in volatile Bakken and Tar Sands crude oil from North Dakota and Canada by train.
In what appeared to observers to be a stunning change of heart, the council unanimously agreed with the Planning Commission’s earlier recommendation to reject Valero’s project permit.
With other Northern California cities —and San Luis Obispo—watching carefully, the council’s action set a precedent and reaffirmed a city’s right to regulate local land use and protect the health and safety of its citizens.
The decision may have marked the first significant rejection by a California small town of a fossil fuel company’s proposed major business expansion, and probably notes the diminishing power of the industry in local and state politics.
Interestingly enough, the most prominent rejection by a small town of an oil company’s intended expansion occurred in Denton, Texas. Denton, a quiet and prosperous suburb of Dallas, in the middle of America’s oil patch, banned fracking (a method of shale gas extraction that uses large amounts of water pumped at high pressure into channels drilled into rock to release gas) within the city limits in 2014.
Benicia council’s decision has signaled the city’s first steps away from its past dependence on the fossil fuel industry and its Company Town identity, and marks a tentative step toward a new reality. While local, the decision was significant and reflects the growing momentum of the megatrend known as the Green Industrial Revolution, which is replacing carbon dependent economies with those powered by renewable energy.
Despite the decision, and for years to come Benicia’s tax revenue will still be highly dependent on fossil fuel, and so the developments of the Green Industrial Revolution with its twin drivers of carbon emission reduction and non-carbon energy expansion will have enormous consequences. As the Green Industrial Revolution expands, it will lead to the decline of the fossil fuel industries and correspondingly to the reduction of Benicia’s tax base and carbon-dependent economy.
Here are some other recent events furthering this expansion, and while not local, all have a bearing on Benicia’s future.
The first event happened at the recent G20 meeting in Hangzhou, China. The G20 meeting, which occurs annually, brought together the world’s 20 major economies to discuss international problems and potential policies and solutions. Leaders from the U.S., the European Union, China, Japan and Russia among others, came together for the two-day summit. Next year’s meeting is in Germany.
Woodrow Clark, my writing/business partner, is a member of the B20, a G20 subgroup that focuses on international business and economic issues. As a member of the group that delivered a policy report at the Hangzhou meeting, Woody had a front row view of the historic G20 meeting. Among the policy discussions that the meeting generated, there were some remarkable initiatives. One was that Russia agreed to join the US and China, along with the EU in addressing climate change. I imagine that India will also commit to GHG reductions next year at the G20 meeting in Germany.
This is an expansion of the initial US/China agreement from December’s UN Climate Conference in Paris. It increases the pressure on the fossil fuel industry, which is already beset by plunging oil prices, corrupt and chaotic politics, and furthers the rapid development of non-carbon renewable energy. Its impact on Benicia is indirect, unlike a report from Japan’s Eneco Holdings, LTD, which was part of the G20 Executive Talk Series. (Here’s the link to the vertical edition http://g20executivetalkseries.com )
A second development was also part of the G20 meeting and featured the showcasing of a remarkable chemical breakthrough by Eneco Holdings, LTD, from Japan. The company has the potential to be one of Asia’s largest energy companies with their development of a nano-emulsion technology. It appears that the company has succeeded in making a “complete fusion” between water and oil through the ultra-miniaturization of components at the molecular level. In simple terms, they have succeeded, where all others have failed, in mixing water and oil into a combustible fuel. The result is a mixture that is 70 percent water and stable enough to be a used in internal combustion engines. Further, it is safe and environmentally friendly, emitting about half the carbon, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide released in traditional internal combustion gasoline and diesel combustions. Additionally, when produced in large quantities it will be significantly cheaper than conventional gasoline and diesel.
Originally produced for the Japanese market, Eneco’s Plasma Fusion fuel is being tested and used in China and other parts of Asia. With clean emissions levels, it is ideal for the heavily polluted Asian megacities, and should rapidly grow into a viable alternative to conventional gasoline and diesel. Just imagine how healthy West Oakland’s port area would be without its diesel contaminates? Regardless, this emulsion fuel will be a transitional fuel to hydrogen powered vehicles.
The third development that will have a significant impact on the fossil fuel industries is the continual plunge in the price of solar panels. Last week at a meeting, a solar developer told me that panel prices are now the lowest they have ever been in California, plus they are functioning at their highest levels of efficiency.
Driven by the economic principle of Zero Cost Margins—once the equipment is paid for, the rest of the energy is free—solar and renewable energy are expanding at the rate of Moore’s Law, or doubling about every 18 months. Developing and developed nations are rapidly adopting renewable energy, mostly wind and solar, as a replacement for fossil fuels. In about 20 areas in the world, particularly in Asia, solar and renewable energy are less expensive than fossil fuel. Even Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are developing large solar power generation sites.
Because of Russian aggression and threats of shutting off the natural gas supply, Europe has accelerated its transition from fossil fuel and atomic energy to wind and solar. Germany is a major user of solar energy despite the northern climate, and the United Kingdom is building the world’s biggest offshore wind farm called Hornsea off the Yorkshire coast. Hornsea will be the world’s first offshore wind farm to exceed 1 GW in capacity and will produce enough energy to power well over 1 million homes.
Closer to home, the United States’ Pacific coastline has enough wind and tidal resources to power most of the nation’s needs, and by adding solar to the mix, the U.S. could easily generate enough electricity for centuries to come. Roughly speaking, wind power costs about 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour and solar about 5 to 6 cents. PG&E charges around 22 to 24 cents per kilowatt hour, so it’s just a matter of time before on-site or distributive energy overtakes traditional energy delivery.
Further, the carbon industries and the large central utilities have flawed business models that are dependent on ever increasing growth and they cannot adapt to the lower prices available from renewable energy, or the increasing efficiency of vehicles and buildings. This is why Clark and I have written extensively on energy cost deflation and the shrinkage and decline of the carbon industries and the large central utilities.
Finally, we come to Sept. 8’s monumental signing by Gov. Jerry Brown of Senate Bill 32, the legislation that has catapulted California into a leadership role of the international efforts to slow global warming. SB 32 will force the state’s trillion-dollar economy, one of the biggest in the world, into a much smaller carbon footprint. In fact, the legislation requires the state to slash greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a much more ambitious target than the previous goal of hitting 1990 levels by 2020. Cutting emissions will affect nearly all aspects of our lives, accelerating the growth of renewable energy, prodding people into buying electric autos, and pushing developers into building denser communities connected to mass transit. (Details: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-jerry-brown-signs-climate-laws-20160908-snap-story.html ).
One other key element to California’s pursuit of clean air and reduced greenhouse gases is the state’s cap-and-trade program. The program requires the state’s heavy polluters to buy carbon offsets, or credits, to release emissions into the atmosphere, creating an additional operating cost for the oil and utility industries.
SB 32 and the expansion of cap-and-trade will have dramatic impacts on the state’s fossil fuel industries. Likely many of us are driving our last conventional gasoline powered vehicle, with the next one probably powered by electricity or hydrogen. It’s not hard to predict that since the Bay Area’s refineries are the heaviest of the area’s polluters, that the combination of reduced revenue from shrinking demand and increased costs of production and operation will eventually lead to refinery closings.
The fossil fuel industries won’t give up easily, there’s trillions of dollars at stake. Many of the industries leaders and the more prescient investment bankers know that the fossil fuel era has peaked and started to decline, which is why Russia overran the Crimea and is poised to take over Ukraine. Which is why the U.S. and Canada are being besieged by the fossil fuel interests to ignore or eliminate environmental and safety protections that hamper production.
Which is why Valero pushed so hard to transport volatile Bakken crude by rail cars through the densely populated Sacramento corridor and cram the trains into Benicia and a refinery that is not designed or equipped to deal with them. The industries, the refineries and all connected to the fossil fuel era, know that the incredibly lucrative period when oil was king and black gold flowed from the sand is coming to an end.
Bringing this back to Benicia, we see a city that is dependent on Valero for tax revenue and its governing process glimpsing a new reality. Small cities like Benicia that have been so dependent on the fossil fuel industries for so much and for so long, struggle to change. Other cities like those in the deindustrialized Midwest that have suffered sudden collapses of their major companies and tax bases have had to reinvent their economic drivers or just blow away. But it’s hard for a city like Benicia with its apparent prosperity and ease of living to understand that its fossil fuel base is in decline and that the future is elsewhere.
Grant Cooke is a longtime Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also an author and has written several books on the Green Industrial Revolution. His newest is “Smart Green Cities” by Routledge.