Russian roulette is a dangerous game of chance. A bullet is placed into a revolver, and the chamber is revolved. You’ve got a one in six chance that when you pull the trigger a bullet will come out. Be careful where you point that thing!
Allowing oil trains to pass through a community is like playing a game of Russian roulette. Granted, your chances are exponentially better than 1 in 6, but if a disaster were to happen, it would not be just you who gets hurt.
Right now, Phillips 66 (an oil refining company that recently spun off from ConocoPhillips) would like to be allowed to expand its refinery in Nipomo so that it can process shipments of crude oil delivered by trains. The tar sands crude is thick and shipped as “diluted bitumen” — in other words, with chemicals added to make it more fluid and easier to transport. A highly flammable byproduct even remains in the tank cars after they’ve been emptied.
Nipomo is in San Luis Obispo County, so our local officials can do little about this. But they can do something! They can join officials up and down the train route and pass a resolution, or send a letter, in opposition. This has been done by Ventura County, and the cities of Oxnard, Moorpark, Camarillo, Simi Valley, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and many others.
This refinery may be in a neighboring county, but this is a big deal for Santa Barbara. Trains will be allowed to arrive at this refinery on the coast from either the north or the south. If this project is approved, oil trains will be passing through Santa Barbara County.
The proposal from Phillips 66 would allow 260 mile-and-a-half-long trains to offload crude oil at the Nipomo refinery every year. This translates to 520 trips up and down the California coast by crude-carrying trains that will shut down intersections, blare their horns, rumble through our communities, and spew gaseous contamination into the air. The inconvenience, air deficits, and upset are nothing compared to the real threats the loads pose to the health of our communities.
The Phillips 66 tanker fleet is composed entirely of model DOT-111 tanker cars. In July 2014, the US Department of Transportation decided that DOT-111s are extremely failure prone and outmoded; the newer, thicker-walled DOT-117 is recommended. Unfortunately, even the train-car builders warn no amount of extra metal or engineering can protect against breakage during a high-speed derailment.
The reality of oil train derailments is horrifying. With the jump in crude produced by fracking, the shipment of crude oil by rail has also jumped by thousands of percent. Unsurprisingly, the number of oil train derailments has also accelerated rapidly. So much so that in 2014, more crude oil was spilled in the U.S. from train derailments than in any year since data has been collected.
In just the past week there have been two major oil train accidents in North America. A train derailed in Ontario, Canada — pretty much directly north of Ohio — the night of February 14. Several tank cars caught fire, and the remote location made it difficult for emergency teams to arrive.
Two days later, midday on February 16, another train pulling DOT-111 cars derailed, exploded [Editor: no, they were the “improved” CPC-1232 tank cars], and leaked oil into the Kanawha River amid a snowstorm in West Virginia. At the time of this writing, roughly 15 tanker cars were still burning, hundreds of families have been evacuated from their homes, and two water treatment plants downriver from the spill have been shut down.
The question you have to ask the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors is this: If an oil train explosion is not currently a serious possibility in our part of North America, why would we do something to change that?
Phillips 66 Runs into Public Resistance over Proposal to Lay New Tracks and Unload More Canadian Crude
By Natalie Cherot, January 23, 2015
A slow-moving pipeline moves a haul of crude oil to a refinery just north of the Santa Barbara County border. Stand on the nearby coast’s 18,000-year-old sand dunes and look away from the sea, and a perfect view emerges of the expansive Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery. The name is a misnomer. The San Luis Obispo facility on the Nipomo Mesa is 17 miles northwest from the City of Santa Maria. Directly south is the Santa Maria River.
Golden Sierra Madre mountains shimmer in the distance, and hearty sage scrub surrounds its perimeter alongside grazing cattle. The night sky around the facility is never dark; its aquarium lights border on festive. The illumination is necessary because the refinery is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It begins the process of turning crude into a finished product like gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel, and pumps the semi-refined batches 200 miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area plants for finishing.
With oil prices dropping and California supplies both dwindling and facing harsh competition from North Dakota, much speculation swirls on the question of what kind of oil will arrive to the refinery on the dunes in the coming years. Right now it is “mostly used for California-produced oil,” said Phillips 66 spokesperson Rich Johnson.
But as of 2013, Phillips 66’s newest product is Canadian tar sands, a thick, gooey combination of clay, sand, water, and viscous bitumen. It’s hard to control and expensive to process. The Kearl Lake tar sands field cuts through Alberta’s boreal forest and wetlands, and has been turned into a mined landscape. An estimated 170 billion more barrels are still available for the taking.
In the summer of 2013, Phillips 66 submitted permit applications to San Luis Obispo County’s Planning Commission to add 1.3 miles of train track to its Santa Maria Refinery’s existing rail spur so crude can be delivered by train rather than by pipe. The proposed upgrades, which include five parallel tracks, an unloading facility, and new on-site pipelines, wouldn’t increase the amount of crude processed at the facility — volume is capped by the county’s Air Pollution Control District — but they reflect an increasing amount of oil train traffic across the country. BusinessWeek.com reported that it’s tripled in the last four years.
According to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the facility would be able to handle five train unloads a week for a maximum of 250 a year. Each train with about 80 tanks on board would carry between 1.8 million and 2.1 million gallons of crude.
A first draft of the EIR — which indicated that both Canadian tar sands and North Dakota Bakken formation crude would be carried on the trains — was published that fall and received 800 public comments. The massive amount of feedback, much of it negative, prompted the Planning Commission to delay a final decision on the project. The commission issued a second 889-page draft EIR in October 2014, and a few weeks from now, a public comment period will take place. The date has not been finalized.
The biggest contention in the first draft was about Bakken crude. “The bottom line is Bakken Crude likes to burn and it will not take much to get it going,” wrote Paul Lee, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning and Building Department. For preparation of the second draft EIR, Phillips 66 requested the county “delete statements suggesting that the Bakken oilfield as the most likely source of crude oil.” The new draft EIR states no Bakken will arrive by rail. Phillips’s spokesperson Rich Johnson said the refinery can’t handle the sweeter, lighter Bakken crude, as it specializes in the ultra-heavy tar sands.
Four accidents involving Bakken crude are mentioned in the latest report. A 30,000-barrel spill occurred in April 2014 in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a transport train derailed and erupted into flames. In November 2013, a train jumped the tracks in Aliceville, Alabama. Twelve tanker cars of Bakken spilled and caught fire. The next month, another oil train crashed in Casselton, North Dakota, where 20 cars of Bakken exploded and burned for 24 hours. Forty-seven people died when a train carrying the crude derailed and exploded in Quebec on July 2013.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a warning to move transportation of Bakken oil away from highly populated areas because of explosion risks. “Most think that Crude will not get going unless it gets warmed up first and in some cases that is correct, [but] Bakken Crude does not need to be aggravated to burn or even explode,” wrote Lee. “The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is concerned about its ability to explode so much in fact that there is a recommendation to have rail avoid populated areas.”
Phillips 66’s rail expansion plan is part of larger national strategy to better accommodate tar sands coming out of the ground quicker than the current system of pipelines can handle. “Our real challenge that we have, or opportunity that we have, is to get advantaged crudes to the East Coast and West Coast,” said Greg Garland, chairman and CEO of Phillips 66, at the Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference last year. “So we’re working that in terms of moving Canadian crudes down into California or building rail facilities.”
Two thousands miles north in Alberta, Canada, the contentious Keystone XL pipeline would transport tar sands through Montana, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Houston. The pipeline’s foes claim the fuel is too emission-intensive and corrosive to pipelines. Supporters say if the Keystone XL is blocked, tar sands will come by the more dangerous transportation methods of boat or rail. Recent Philips 66 literature states: “Until new pipeline projects come online, rail is in many cases the easiest and most cost efficient way to get advantaged crude to some of our refineries.”
Trains coming and going from Santa Maria Refinery would travel the path of the Union Pacific Rail, on tracks shared by Amtrak. They would make the journey north through the Nipomo Mesa, up the precarious Cuesta Grade through Paso Robles, Salinas, and San Jose. Then they head through Richmond, then Berkeley. Richmond and Berkeley city councils recently passed resolutions calling for stricter regulations on crude oil trains.
The paths of the trains coming from the south — and carrying crude from any number of sources — are unclear and not ironed out in the draft EIR, but they would likely go through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A potential path indicated in the report heads through downtown Moorpark at the eastern edge of Ventura County after it passes through Simi Valley, but that potential route may have hit a glitch.
On December 17, the Moorpark City Council voted to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission opposing Phillip 66’s proposal because of its potentially hazardous risks. “I feel strongly that we need to show a little bit of leadership here as a city to formally object to this,” said one councilmember. “Hopefully other cities along this track will as well.” According to the report, once the trains leave Moorpark they could head through Camarillo to Ventura and along the coast to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Goleta.
Johnson does not see much long-term job growth — or even stability — at the refinery given its current pipeline setup and a recent dip in statewide supplies. To stay competitive, company officials have argued, the refinery needs to revamp its intake methods so it can accept crude from other sources. “We are trying to keep the jobs we have,” Johnson said of the 200 people working at the plant. “Oil production in California is on the decline.” Rumors of a too-twisted and warped Monterey Shale formation from years of tectonic activity became a public reality in May when the government agency, Energy Information Administration, downgraded a predicted 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil to 600 million.
Repost from NBC Bay Area [Editor: The Phillips 66 trains would come over the Sierra, and through Sacramento. From there, they COULD travel south through Stockton and then west to the Bay Area. OR they could continue west from Sacramento, through Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and BENICIA. Here the trains would cross two seriously aging bridges in Benicia and Martinez before traveling through the heavily populated East Bay and South Bay. See also the announcement by the Center for Biological Diversity. Apologies for the video’s commercial ad. – RS]
San Jose City Council Votes to Oppose Plans For Crude Oil Transport
By Robert Handa, Jan 13, 2015
A major oil company looking to transport millions of gallons of crude oil on a train line through San Jose and Santa Clara has many South Bay residents up in arms.
Part of the expansion of the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery operation includes transportation along a stretch on Monterey Road in South San Jose. Many people in the area are worried about a possible train derailment involving toxic crude oil.
“Our concerns are ‘What would happen if a derailment occurred?’ And, in particular, the load that the trains are carrying,” said Sergio Jimenez, who heads up a homeowners association in South San Jose.
A check of the area shows a fence separating homes from the train tracks.
City Councilman Ash Kalra proposed San Jose take a stance on the issue with a letter opposing the oil company’s plan.
“It’s coming right through our cities within a hundred feet of homes in my council district,” Kalra said. “Going through farmlands in my council district as well, and going through downtown.”
The issue was discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting and a debate lasted lasted late into the afternoon, with some council members saying it is the federal government’s job, not the city’s, to make the call.
“We should also be asking ‘Is enough being done to make us safe?'” Councilman Johnny Khamis said. “But not outright oppose it.”
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to oppose the plans for crude oil to be transported through San Jose and urged the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to reject the expansion proposal.
Other cities along the rail route affected by the Santa Maria Phillips 66 project have also submitted letters or passed resolutions against crude-by-rail, including Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Martinez, Davis and Moorpark.
A crude proposal: The pros and cons of a controversial Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project
By Rhys Heyden, December 31, 2014
When viewed from the proper angle, the central conflict here bears a peculiar type of poetic symmetry: A local refinery would like to transport much of its crude oil into San Luis Obispo County via train, while opponents would prefer such plans to be driven out of the county on a rail.
Many stakeholders adamantly support the project, while many locals virulently oppose the proposed rail spur that would allow this transportation method to materialize. There are plenty of lawyers involved and lots of money tied up in each side of the issue, and the project itself reaches far beyond the borders of SLO County.
Originally proposed in mid-2013, the Phillips 66 rail spur extension project has remained largely unchanged: Succinctly put, the company wants to begin construction of a rail spur at its Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo, thereby giving the facility the newfound ability to receive oil via rail.
It’s a project that appears simple on the surface, but gains layers of complexity the closer one looks. It also touches on several national issues: railroad safety, energy independence, and regulation vs. free enterprise, to name a few.
Ultimately, SLO County officials will likely be making vital yea or nay decisions about the Phillips 66 rail spur extension project in the next few months.
New Times spoke with many stakeholders and experts; examined documents, reports, and public comments; and traveled to Nipomo, all in the interest of answering the basics: What is this project, and why should SLO County residents support or oppose it?
The primary thrust of the rail spur project is fairly simple: construction of a rail spur facility that would allow the refinery in Nipomo to receive crude oil via rail. Currently, the facility receives oil only by pipeline.
The rousing debate over a proposal to bring crude oil by rail to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo (pictured) looms large on the national and local political stages.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
According to the most recent environmental impact report (EIR) for the project, the trains arriving at the refinery would be capped at five per week, or 250 per year. Each train would consist of three locomotives, two buffer cars, and 80 tank cars, and total oil capacity per train would be between 49,670 and 53,532 barrels.
Averaged out over seven-day weeks, the daily oil delivery by rail would be between 35,478 and 38,237 barrels. To contextualize, each barrel of oil is equivalent to 42 gallons.
Precisely how this oil would arrive to SLO County is anyone’s guess. The EIR posits that the oil trains could enter California at any one of five different locations, and could arrive at the refinery from the north or the south on Union Pacific’s Coast Line (which runs from the Bay Area to Los Angeles).
“With this Phillips 66 project, we would deliver crude oil because—as a common carrier—if a customer wants us to move that kind of product, we are federally required to do so,” said Aaron Hunt, a UP spokesman based in Omaha. “It’s a ‘wait and see’ about how we move the oil, though. Nothing is stationary.”
Currently, there’s only one crude oil train that moves through (but doesn’t stop in) SLO County, running from San Ardo to Los Angeles two to three times per week.
“Rail traffic on the UPRR Coast Line through San Luis Obispo County is relatively light,” the project EIR notes. “The average number of freight trains running the length of the Coastal Route is about two per day.”
Another significant component of the project is the physical spur itself. Proposed in the project is the construction of five parallel tracks and an unloading rack extending eastward from the facility, but staying entirely within the boundaries of the refinery property.
The project EIR estimates that the process of arriving, unloading, and departing from the refinery would take between 10 and 12 hours per train, contingent upon Union Pacific scheduling.
Although a great deal of oil would arrive at the refinery via rail were this project approved, the refined product would continue to leave the facility as it currently does—by pipeline to Phillips 66’s linked Rodeo facility in the Bay Area.
In addition, the total amount of material processed at the refinery would remain the same, as that level is capped by county authorities.
“Phillips 66 is working to ensure the long-term viability of the Santa Maria Refinery and the many jobs it provides,” said Houston-based company spokesman Dennis Nuss. “Our plans for this project reflect our company’s commitment to operational excellence and safety while enhancing the competitiveness of the facility.”
The review process
Despite an initial push for a speedy turnaround by Phillips 66, the rail spur project has encountered several significant obstacles and delays as it’s rolled through SLO County’s review process.
The project’s initial draft EIR (DEIR) was released on Nov. 27, 2013, to relatively little fanfare, but word spread quickly in environmental activist circles, as well as among Nipomo residents. Soon enough, hundreds of public comments critiquing the project from near and far flooded the SLO County Planning and Building Department.
Murry Wilson—an environmental resource specialist and the planning department’s point man on the project—told New Times in March 2014 that his department was overwhelmed by the roughly 800 public comments that had come in regarding the project’s DEIR.
“Many of the comments were really substantive, and the nature of the project has changed enough as a result of those comments that the DEIR could no longer provide an appropriate review for the project,” Wilson said at the time. “Making sure the public has access and a chance to respond to new information is the key thing here.”
Under Wilson’s advisement, the county pushed for recirculating the DEIR to adequately respond to those “substantive” comments, and Phillips 66 (which is funding the review process) agreed to the additional expense and subsequent elongation of the review process on March 24.
At 708 dense pages, that initial 2013 DEIR was no lightweight, but the re-circulated DEIR—which debuted on Oct. 10—weighed in at an even heftier 889 pages.
The public comment period for that second report closed on Nov. 24, and the county and the DEIR consultants have since been sifting through, organizing, and bracketing the nearly 11,000 comments they received on their second go-round.
This is an aerial map of the rail spur extension project and environs. Outlined in yellow is the boundary of Phillips 66’s property, in black is the Union Pacific mainline railroad, in blue is the outline of the proposed rail spur, and in red is where a pipeline would run from the spur to the refinery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
Though the vast majority of the comments came in as individually signed form letters from about five different environmental activist groups, several hundred unique comments from individuals, governmental agencies, organizations, schools, and even Phillips 66 poured in.
The majority of the comments are critical of the project, but there are also many letters that are either neutral or in support of the proposal.
The review process, as Wilson explained to New Times, is in its final stages. Essentially, the project consultants need to adequately respond to all public comments and draft a final EIR including those responses. Wilson had set a mid-January goal for completion of that process, and he said everyone involved is still striving to hit that target.
The first public hearing for the rail spur project—at the SLO County Planning Commission, where public officials will finally get the chance to vote yes or no on Phillips 66’s project—had been slated for Feb. 5, but Wilson said that hearing will likely be bumped.
“The sheer volume of comments we received is probably going to delay the hearing date,” he explained. “Feb. 19 would be the next possible Planning Commission date, and that’s possible; it just all depends on the depth in which our consultants may need to do their responses and/or additional analysis.”
Asked about the potential for yet another DEIR recirculation, Wilson said he’s “pretty confident we’re not going down that path,” adding that he wants to set this project for a hearing and wrap up the review process ASAP.
So, now that you have a pretty good idea about the nature of this project and what’s happened up until now, you’re probably still wondering why you should—or shouldn’t—support it.
Seeking to understand why many people support the project, New Times reached out to Phillips 66 to get their point of view.
Though New Times requested a tour of the refinery and access to speak with a variety of Phillips 66 employees, the company—working with SLO-based PR firm Barnett Cox & Associates—declined to provide either, instead offering a presentation and interview with two company spokespeople.
In a roughly 90-minute conversation between two reporters, refinery Maintenance Superintendant Jim Anderson, a Barnett Cox rep, and company spokesman Nuss via telephone, Phillips 66 laid out its case for project approval.
Essentially, Nuss and Anderson argued that oil production in Santa Barbara County (the refinery’s predominant current source of oil at about 65 to 80 percent of total sourcing) is in decline. Anticipating further falloff, the company wants to diversify how it receives oil and where it receives it from.
This rail spur project and receiving oil by rail, they posit, will allow the Santa Maria Refinery (and the 135 or so local jobs it provides) to stay viable for decades to come.
When asked if Phillips 66 has ever considered shutting down the refinery or if the company would abandon the refinery if the rail spur wasn’t approved, Nuss said such discussions hadn’t occurred, adding that the company “will not speculate about the project.”
Anderson added that “our options would start to become really limited” if the rail spur project doesn’t move forward.
Oil by rail, Nuss and Anderson argued, is already a reality across the nation and even in SLO County (with the established San Ardo to L.A. train), and they pointed out that Union Pacific is doing quite a bit to make sure its tracks are safe for crude oil trains.
Lastly, Nuss and Anderson added that residents have raised legitimate concerns about environmental impacts (noise, lights, emissions, and the potential for spills), but they opined that such impacts will be adequately mitigated wherever they can be.
“The refinery is good for us. It provides high-paying jobs, is a great neighbor, and is a longtime business that needs to keep operating,” Anderson wrote in a letter supporting the project. “The draft EIR spells out the way issues like noise, lights, and particulate emissions can be managed, and with these points taken care of, there is no reason to deny the application.”
“Protecting our people, our environment, and our communities guides everything we do, and those values will be applied to this project as well,” Nuss wrote in a follow-up email to New Times.
It’s worth noting that Phillips 66 employees are not the only ones supporting the company’s endeavor.
“The Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery has been quietly doing its job for 60 years, and what I have observed is a business that operates safely and with respect for our community,” Cuesta College President Gil Stork wrote in a Nov. 19 letter supporting the project. “We all have to adapt to changing market conditions to survive, not every one’s changes are subject to the scrutiny the refinery is managing. The draft EIR is long and thorough and addresses every detail of the project.”
This is the crux of the pro-rail spur argument: shouldering a few additional (mitigated) environmental impacts for the sake of keeping well-paying refinery jobs in SLO County and respecting a longstanding community-member.
If Phillips 66’s measured, cautious, and calculated approach to supporting its own project is at one end of the proverbial spectrum, then the aggressive, kinetic, and fiery opposition to the project is its natural polar opposite.
Project adversaries include prominent environmental groups (the Sierra Club, ForestEthics, and Communities for a Better Environment among them) and city councils as far-spread as Berkeley, Richmond, and Moorpark. But perhaps the most representative group of all is a small, local assembly of project opponents: the Mesa Refinery Watch Group (MRWG).
During a December trip to Nipomo, MRWG steering committee members Martin Akel, Gary McKible, and Laurance Shinderman (as well as MRWG member Paul Stolpman) met with New Times to demonstrate and explain exactly why they’re opposed to the project.
“I think of it in terms of the baseball field in Iowa: If you build it, they will come,” Stolpman said. “In this case, if you don’t build it, they can’t come.
Gary McKible (left) and Laurance Shinderman (right) are steering committee members of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group (MRWG), an assembly of local residents opposed to the rail spur extension project.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
“If you don’t give them a place to park the trains at the end of the line, they won’t be coming down the line at all,” he added.
In conversations and emails with New Times, MRWG members expounded on the multifarious reasons they think the rail spur is ill-advised. Rationales ranged from visual blight to noise pollution to air pollution to the risk of a catastrophic derailment and/or oil spill at any point on the tracks.
Unsurprisingly, MRWG members also disagreed with what they see as “specious” arguments from Phillips 66. They feel that the company has not been a good neighbor and is pursuing the crude-by-rail strategy primarily to enhance profits, not because any refinery jobs or the local oil supply are truly at risk. In fact, they view those rationales as red herrings.
“Phillips wants to make the Central Coast a hub for crude by rail, and I feel like that’s pretty obvious,” Akel said. “That said, our worst enemy isn’t Phillips, it’s an uninformed public. People need to know.”
One larger group working toward that same end is the Sierra Club. Andrew Christie, director of the local Santa Lucia Chapter, told New Times that his organization emphatically objects to the rail spur project.
“There are just no grounds on which to support this project,” he told New Times. “The impacts are understated, the EIR has been deficient from the start, and there are still 11 ‘significant and unavoidable’ impacts in a defective EIR.”
The 11 “significant and unavoidable” project impacts Christie refers to are a touchstone for the MRWG as well—five in the “air quality and greenhouse gases” category and one each in “biological resources,” “cultural resources,” “hazards and hazardous materials,” “public services and utilities,” and “water resources” categories.
All of these impacts are essentially due to the potential for high levels of toxic emissions from the oil trains or the mushrooming consequences of a possible crude oil spill and/or derailment.
Driving a New Times photographer and reporter around Nipomo, McKible and Shinderman—when not kibitzing back and forth—were adept at pointing out which neighborhoods and homes would potentially bear the brunt of noise, light, and pollutant impacts from the spur.
Eventually, they pulled over to the side of Highway 1 near the Mesa Fire Station, where the metallic frame of the refinery can be seen looming over the dunes.
“There is no benefit with this project—we are all subject to collateral damage with what they’ll be doing up and down the rail line,” McKible said, shaking his head. “We derive no benefit, and we take on all the risk.”
The battle for support
As the rail spur project review process wraps up and actual yea or nay votes are looming, indications are everywhere that the war for public opinion (and the favor of elected officials) has kicked into high gear on both sides—but especially on Phillips 66’s behalf.
On Oct. 24, Union Pacific scheduled two “invitation-only” sessions to see a “state-of-the-art interactive training car that will travel the U.S. teaching safety and emergency preparedness.”
In an email sent to many SLO County officials advertising the event, organizers noted that “Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery is delighted to invite you to tour the training car, and see a crude oil railcar that we are bringing to San Luis Obispo to help educate community leaders about our proposed rail project.”
On a separate note, in a Dec. 15 letter in the Tribune, SLO resident Amber Johnson took aim at the multitude of form letters from environmental groups responding to the DEIR, castigating them as “out-of-town special interest groups who clearly have their own agenda.
“The only special interest I pay attention to is that of the health and prosperity of San Luis Obispo County by supporting responsible businesses such as Phillips who wish to continue to contribute to our local economy,” Johnson concluded. “This decision needs to be based on what is best for our county, not what outsiders think is best.”
Johnson is herself a political strategist who was a regional field director for the oil company-sponsored “No on P” campaign in Santa Barbara County, a former campaign manager for newly-elected SLO County District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of SLO County.
Lastly, on Dec. 19, Phillips 66 made a splash with a $30,000 donation to the fledgling San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.
The Paso Robles Daily News quotes Bill Schroll, manager of the Santa Maria Refinery, as saying that, “All of us involved in the oil industry are aware of the role the local railroad played—and continues to play—in keeping our product moving.
“We are delighted to help educate residents and areas visitors about the rich history of the railroads and their role on the Central Coast, including the dynamic partnership that continues between our industries,” he concluded.
Unsurprisingly for a project of this magnitude, many politicos polled by New Times said they saw the rail spur project likely being appealed by one side or the other—from the Planning Commission, to the Board of Supervisors, to the California Coastal Commission (the refinery is in the coastal zone)—and then likely being settled in court in a years-long struggle.
What remains to be seen, however, is precisely which arguments will emerge, and which side of the issue will be fighting an uphill battle.
“Ultimately, it comes down to this: Is what they’re proposing appropriate for the community, or are the impacts just too great?,” said District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill. “It will be interesting to see how that question is answered.”