SAN LUIS OBISPO: Planning Commission Bows Down to Oil By Rail

Repost from Sierra Club, Santa Lucia Chapter

SLO Planning Commission Bows Down to Oil By Rail

By Andrew Christie, Chapter Director, May 16, 2016

East Cuesta PanoramaFor a moment today, as the SLO County Planning Commission was getting ready for its lunch break, it looked as though sanity might prevail.

As they commenced deliberations on the Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project after six meetings pondering the issue, receiving County Planning staff’s detailed recommendation for denial of the project, the testimony of the County’s air quality and public health officials and the comments of thousands of California citizens, along with the comments of dozens of cities, counties and school districts all urging denial, it seemed like the facts, science, the law and the fundamentals of good planning would be enough to get the message across to at least a majority of the County’s planning commissioners: You must deny this project.

Commissioner Eric Meyer (Supervisor Hill’s appointee) sensibly asked: “What are the benefits to this county? We’re accepting risk with no reward.“

Commissioner Ken Topping (Supervisor Gibson’s appointee) noted that while it’s possible with some projects to attempt to balance competing interests, “it was difficult to accept a compromise approach in this particular case” and that as damning at the project’s Environmental Impact Report is, “the EIR understates the impacts that could occur.”

But it was not to be.

Commissioner Don Campbell (Supervisor Arnold’s appointee) cited his fervent allegiance to the unimpeded flow of industrial commerce.

Commissioner Jim Harrison (Supervisor Compton’s appointee) basically said that accidents happen and not enough people have died in train derailments to make this an issue of concern. He had nothing to say about the significant environmental impacts described at length in the Environmental Impact Report.

Commissioner Jim Irving (Supervisor Mecham’s appointee) essentially said it doesn’t matter what the Planning Commission decides because the case will probably go to the California Supreme Court as there is disagreement on the question of whether federal regulation of the transport of freight by rail means the County is not allowed to fully assess the impacts of an oil train project when considering a permit. (Worth pointing out: that disagreement is fundamentally between oil companies pushing oil train projects and California’s Attorney General,who has unequivocally stated not only that a local government may consider all of an oil train project’s impacts, it must do so, as “to turn a blind eye to the most serious of the Project’s environmental impacts, merely because they flow from federally-regulated rail operations, would be contrary to both state and federal law.”) In the rest of his comments, Irving made it clear that he disagreed with the Attorney General and the County’s legal counsel and agreed with the oil companies.

Harrison contributed the single most mystifying comment of the day when he claimed, in reference to the residents of homes adjacent to the site where the rail spur would go and are vocally protesting the project, “This project was there before they moved there,” so they should have known about its impacts – evidently confusing the existing refinery, which nobody is complaining about, with a project that has not been approved or built and had not been proposed when residents bought their homes.

A close runner-up for most mystifying comment was Commissioner Irving. When it became clear in the course of his remarks that he was going to vote to approve the project, he was asked by Commissioner Meyer what overriding considerations he saw as justifying approval. Legally, if the commission approves a project with significant environmental impacts, it must state that despite the unavoidable and significant impacts the project will inflict on residents and the environment, the County is going to permit it because public benefits from the project outweigh those detrimental impacts — hence, an overriding consideration. In response, Irving went back to his interpretation of federal preemption, replying: “The county sets goals but can’t do anything to meet its own goals…that in itself is a statement of overriding consideration.” (Again: “overriding considerations” refers to the benefits a project will confer upon the community that outweigh its negative impacts.)

On September 22, County staff will do as they were told today: Reverse their recommendation for denial and come back to the Planning Commission with some kind of findings that Campbell, Harrison and Irving can use as a basis for a vote to approve the project. The public will be allowed to weigh in on those proposed conditions and overriding considerations. What form those could possibly take, and how those three commissioners will fare in the struggle to find a legal basis for the approval of this project, are two very good questions.  It is bound to be a riveting discussion. The lipstick is approaching the pig, but there’s a chance that the outcome may not be preordained.

Long before that — at 6 p.m. on May 18, at the SLO City/County Library, 995 Palm Street, SLO — all concerned residents are invited to get together with the activists who have been organizing the opposition to this project and have a discussion about next steps and what’s needed to restore environmental sanity. Hope to see you there.

Go to or call 805-316-0033.