THE WAR AGAINST PHILLIPS 66’s CRUDE-BY-RAIL PLAN -
HERE ARE THE EVENTS THAT LED TO VICTORY
INTRODUCTION: We’re all aware that P66 decided not to pursue its lawsuit against SLO County. The result — the County’s rejection of the rail terminal stands firm, and P66’s crude oil trains will not be traveling through California to their Nipomo Mesa refinery.
But that outcome wasn’t easily achieved. The struggle was enormously complex and required dozens of cumulative years of “people power,” from 2014 to 2017. It took surprising twists and turns. Given the importance of what was achieved, it’s worthwhile chronicling the events. This story shows what ordinary people can accomplish despite facing an imposing opponent.
Here’s what happened, from the viewpoint of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group. ______________________________________________________________________________________
1. P66 Announces Their Intentions - December ‘13:
At a public meeting, SLO County’s Planning Commission and P66 jointly introduced the company’s proposal to change their business model regarding delivery of crude oil to their Nipomo Mesa refinery.
P66 desired, after 60+ years, to switch from underground
pipelines of California crude to rail delivery of crude from
outside the state. It was spelled out in a Draft Environmental
Impact Report (DEIR).
P66 claimed they needed rail to “remain viable” and protect
jobs at the Mesa refinery.
The project was presented as relatively benign until people began asking questions that evening. For example — “Will Phillips' proposed rail tankers contain highly volatile Bakken crude oil?” The answer — “We’re not sure.” That sent up red flags ... alerting citizens that they needed to independently investigate the issues.
Just two weeks later in Casselton, ND, an oil train exploded and spilled 400,000 gallons of crude (see above photo) — offering further warnings of the potential dangers.
2. Formation Of The MRWG - January ’14: Nipomo Mesa residents
began doing their homework, researching the impacts of crude-by-rail,
then comparing notes. They recognized it was far more than a “NIMBY”
issue ... it affected communities up and down the California coast.
A dozen residents who possessed a wide range of professional skills
recognized the breadth and depth of the risks. They dedicated themselves
to fighting crude-by-rail, and formed the Mesa Refinery Watch Group Steering
Committee. The grassroots group’s motto -
“Crude-By Rail: Only Phillips 66 Wins; Citizens Become Collateral Damage.”
MISSION OF THE MESA REFINERY WATCH GROUP
• EDUCATING citizens on the health and safety dangers and negative economic impacts of the Phillips 66 rail spur project.
• INFORMING public officials and political groups on the researched facts, supporting why the rail spur project must be rejected.
• COORDINATING with other groups and organizations as a resource for promoting the serious concerns of rail transport of volatile and explosive crude oil.
3. Launching The MRWG Newsletter - January ‘14: That same month, the MRWG began its “Fact-Based” newsletter. Ultimately, with 50 editions over four years, the publication educated thousands of citizens, government officials, environmental groups and the media. It urged recipients to protest to SLO County’s Planning Commissioners and Supervisors.
The newsletter identified a key fact — in their 2012 annual report, P66’s corporate managers stated they were “Taking A Classic (Company) In A New Direction” ... i.e., implementing a more profitable “crude-by-rail strategy.” Therefore, it became clear that “rail” was a companywide objective, not a local Nipomo Mesa refinery issue ... and that claiming local jobs were at stake was simply a red herring, meant to direct attention away from the dangers of rail.
4. “Draft EIR” Requires A Major Rewrite - March ‘14: Over the previous months, SLO County officials had received more than 800 letters and emails on the project ... almost all in opposition.
Based on the criticisms and missing information, it was determined that the initial Draft EIR was inadequate. It was decided that the document needed to be “recirculated” and additional public comment gathered. Citizens’ voices were being heard!
5. Bakken Crude Is Out; “Tar Sands” Crude Is In - April ’14:
All along, citizens had protested the possibility of explosive Bakken crude oil being shipped here.
That backlash was loud and effective ... helping cause P66 to now state that Bakken was definitely not part of their plans. But, what type of crude would be shipped in P66’s rail tankers?
MRWG members learned that P66 would likely put tar sands from Alberta, Canada into those tankers. That fact was documented in a subsequent EIR. And under further examination, the MRWG discovered that tar sands needed to be diluted to be shipped by rail. And “diluents” (such as benzene) made tar-sands-by-rail as volatile as Bakken!
6. “Recirculated EIR” Released; Dangers Abound - October ‘14:
SLO County released the “REIR.” While it excluded Bakken crude, the same red flags were flying ... severe air pollution, the potential for oil spills, fires and explosions, a lack of emergency services, the potential to damage SLO County’s reputation and businesses, damage to our quality of life, and so forth.
All totaled there were ELEVEN “Class I Impacts” – i.e., significant, unavoidable impacts that could not be mitigated to less than significant levels.
The MRWG and other groups urged citizens, city councils and California counties to write in protest yet again. And they responded! They overwhelmed SLO County officials with 22,000 letters and emails, virtually all requesting that County officials reject the rail terminal and the concept of crude-by-rail.
7. SRO At “Citizens’ Action” Meeting - December ‘14:
There was standing room only at a Nipomo meeting to protest P66’s rail terminal project. Well over 200 citizens attended (including those from as far away as the Bay Area). Presentations documented the harm the project would bring.
That same month, the MRWG filed a 70-page response to the REIR with the SLO Planning Commission, providing in-depth reasons why the rail terminal would bring unacceptable health and safety impacts to the County’s citizens and businesses.
8. Refugio Oil Spill - May ‘15: An onshore pipeline operated by the Plains All American company ruptured near Refugio Beach (Santa Barbara County). An estimated 143,000 gallons of crude spilled, killing fish and wildlife, shutting down fisheries, and despoiling beaches. Two pipelines were shut for an indeterminate period ... one of which served P66’s Nipomo refinery.
In response, P66 used the Refugio spill as a major excuse for
allowing crude-by-rail. They conveniently didn’t mention that
they had applied for the rail terminal in 2013, two years prior,
and that the spill wasn’t a fundamental justification for their project.
(BTW - in the fall of 2017, Plains All American announced their
intention to repair/replace their broken pipelines.)
9. Rally To Protest Crude-By-Rail - July ‘15:
An estimated 500 people gathered in a SLO park to generate further awareness of P66’s plan. The keynote speaker - SLO Mayor Jan Marx.
Hundreds of citizens then marched through downtown SLO carrying signs and banners, chanting their disapproval of crude oil tankers.
The same month, citizens were rallying against oil trains and tar sands in the Bay Area and Ontario.
10. Statewide Momentum Builds - Sept. ’15:
The City of Los Angeles and the counties of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz declared in writing, their official protest against P66’s crude-by-rail strategy. Ultimately eight California counties and 28 cities up and down the coast (representing 15.7 million people) lodged official protests with SLO County’s Planning Commission and Supervisors.
Counties Officially Opposed
• Alameda County
• Los Angeles County
• Monterey County
• San Luis Obispo County
• Santa Barbara County
• Santa Clara County
• Santa Cruz County
• Ventura County
Cities Officially Opposed
• Grover Beach
• Los Angeles
• Mar Vista
• Morgan Hill
• Paso Robles
• Pismo Beach
• Sacramento Area
Council of Governments
• San Jose
• San Leandro
• San Luis Obispo
• Santa Barbara
• Santa Cruz
• Santa Margarita
• Simi Valley
11. SLO Planning Commission Holds Hearings - February to October ‘16: Almost 1.5 years after the original Draft EIR, the Commission’s hearings took place in SLO's Government Center. An overflow crowd had to be seated in the Fremont theater. Opponents wore black shirts and MRWG buttons. With hundreds of citizens attending and offering public comment against the project, the hearings were spread out on eight days across nine months.
• Staff Recommendation: Prior to the hearings, the Commission’s own staff recommended rejection of the project. They stated — “The objective of the Project is to increase the Applicant’s ability to access more economically priced crude. There are insufficient, overriding economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits that outweigh the effects on the environment.”
• Coastal Commission Staff’s Recommendation: The California Coastal Commission’s staff supported the rejection — “Based on the unavoidable adverse impacts to Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas and dune vegetation, we strongly agree with and support your staff’s recommendation that the project’s coastal development permit application be denied.”
• P66 Attempts To Overcome Opposition By Reducing The Quantity Of Trains: P66 stated they would cut the number of trains per year from 250 to 150 (i.e., 150 fully loaded plus 150 empty trains). In effect, they only wanted to be a "little rail pregnant." Ultimately this approach didn’t fly ... volatile crude-by-rail at any level was deemed objectionable.
P66 also argued that the commissioners had no choice in the matter, since crude-by-rail was a federal issue (i.e., that federal “preemption” took precedence). And P66 threatened that if they were not permitted to bring in rail tankers, they’d switch to tanker trucks. Neither of those approaches had traction with the majority of Commissioners.
12. MRWG Focuses Attention On “Passive” Vs. “Active” Land Use - Feb. to Oct. ‘16:
Throughout the Planning Commission hearings, the MRWG reminded officials how incompatible a crude oil rail terminal would be adjacent to residential communities ... communities that were welcomed and approved by Supervisors in the late 1990s.
Officials were shown visuals depicting how a rail terminal would turn “passive” land use (i.e., hidden, underground pipelines) into an extremely “active and invasive” use of land.
It was demonstrated how P66’s project would bring immediate harm and potentially devastating impacts not only to local residents, but to most of SLO County, and numerous other coastal communities from the Bay Area south to Los Angeles.
13. Union Pacific Train Disaster Along The Columbia River Gorge - June ‘16:
Even as Planning Commissioners held hearings on the P66 project, disaster struck in Oregon. Less than a half-mile from downtown Mosier, a UPRR train hauling crude oil derailed, spilling its contents.
Tankers caught fire and exploded. Students in a nearby school were evacuated. Woods were set afire. Crude leaked into the Columbia River. Businesses and the interstate were closed.
This horrific accident served to remind everyone in California that crude oil rail disasters are very real ... and that it’s just a matter of time before the next one occurs. ______________________________________________________________________________________
14. Mosier Mayor Burns Addresses Rally In SLO County - July ‘16:
Mayor Arlene Burns traveled from Oregon to speak to hundreds of
people at Mitchell Park in SLO. Her messages — “Never in a million
years did I think a train would derail on our doorstep. All of a sudden
our reality was very, very different.
“Here (in SLO County) you can stop this before it starts. This
community has a responsibility to take into account everyone along
the tracks. The people are endangered!”
15. Citizens Continue To Express Outrage - Summer ‘16:
Based on the ongoing Planning Commission hearings and the Mosier catastrophe, citizens from throughout California continued to express their extreme indignation with P66’s proposed rail terminal.
Through emails, letters, postcards, testimony at hearings, and at rallies and local meetings, they made their deep opposition known to decision makers.
16. Additional Hearings Held; Planning Commission Rejects P66’s Plan - Sept./October ‘16:
In September, Planning Commissioners took a “straw,” non-binding, 3 - 2 vote giving P66 the edge. However, the actual binding vote came on October 4th.
One commissioner, Jim Irving, dug deep into the truth and facts. He recognized that: P66's premise of running out of California crude simply was unsupportable; there was no credibility in their implied plant closing and loss of jobs; and there would be no economic impact to SLO County if the rail project was denied.
With his original vote now changing to rejection of the project (along with Eric Meyers and Ken Topping who had already stated their opposition), the day was carried! By a 3 - 2 margin, the Planning Commission rejected P66's request for a crude oil rail terminal.
17. New Supervisor Says He’ll Recuse Himself From The P66 Decision - September ‘16:
In September, conservative John Peschong ran for a SLO County Supervisor seat.
Since P66 had been a client of his firm, Mr. Peschong appropriately promised to recuse himself from decisions on P66, should he be elected and P66 appeal to the Board of Supervisors (he won).
18. P66 Appeals To SLO’s Board Of Supervisors - October ‘16: Within two weeks of the Planning Commission’s rejection of the rail project, P66 appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors.
Their Rationale: They were seeking to “connect” to the Canadian crude oil market; they were protesting the timing of the discovery of “ESHA*”; they believed there was an error in the number of trains being discussed; and, they claimed they could offset the diesel emissions that the project would generate.
*Environmentally sensitive habitat areas.
19. P66 Sues SLO County - November ‘16: Following the Planning Commission’s rejection, P66 filed a lawsuit in SLO County Superior Court. The suit focused on “unmapped ESHA.” P66 challenged the timing of the Planning Department’s identification of ESHA as well as the County’s land use ordinance related to ESHA.
This lawsuit was to drag on for 11 months, until October, 2017!
▶ Environmental Groups Join The Defense: Six different
environmental groups subsequently petitioned the court and were allowed to join SLO County in opposing P66’s lawsuit ...
20. MRWG Reports On Deficient Rail Infrastructure In SLO County - February ‘17:
The MRWG investigated potentially dangerous rail conditions on Union Pacific's local tracks. We checked out the lines in Grover Beach and Pismo Beach and discovered: holes in metal connector plates where it seemed spikes should have existed; spikes that weren’t pounded down; and, rotted, split or missing wooden ties.
The situation was reported in our newsletter, supported with photographic evidence.
21. Supervisors Uphold Planning Commission’s Rejection Of The Rail Project - March ‘17:
SLO County’s Supervisors held two days of hearings on P66’s appeal, listening to public comment from 200 citizens. Outside, people rallied against the project.
Prior to the Supervisors’ vote, the Coastal Commission’s staff weighed in yet again ... “We request you adopt the resolution denying (Phillips’) appeal, affirming the decision of the Planning Commission and denying the application of Phillips 66.”
Of special note was that Supervisor Peschong did recuse himself. (It was believed he would have voted in P66’s favor.) Given his recusal, there were only four Supervisors voting, not five.
By a 3 - 1 margin, the remaining Supervisors decided that building a rail terminal and enabling hundreds of volatile crude oil trains to travel here, was not in the public's best interests.
The reasons cited most — air, noise and visual pollution, and the very real potential for train derailments, oil spills, fires, explosions, injuries, deaths and property damage.
Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted against the project. They were joined by Supervisor Lynn Compton. In favor of the rail terminal was Supervisor Debbie Arnold.
The decision was a victory for the determination of citizens to organize, then “show up, stand up and speak up.”
They demonstrated it's possible to defend one's human and property rights against seemingly unconquerable organizations that seek to gain profits, regardless of costs to the public.
22. SLO County Delivers Its Resolution Denying The Appeal Of The P66 Project - March ’17:
SLO County then sent a “Notice Of Final County Action” to P66, stating that the rail terminal application was denied. The reasons were extensive ...
“There are insufficient specific, overriding economic, legal, social,
technological or other benefits of the project that outweigh the
significant effects on the environment.
“Additionally, due to federal preemption, implementation of
mitigation measures to lessen the Class I impacts on the Mainline
within San Luis Obispo County and the state are infeasible.”
▶ Destruction Of ESHA: “The project site contains sensitive plant and animal species needing protection. The Project would permanently impact 20 acres of ESHA.”
▶ Potential For Rail Disasters: “There is the potential for fire and explosions along the mainline rail, which could impact life, structures and the environment. The County is likely preempted from implementing conditions that could mitigate these impacts.”
▶ Lack Of Emergency Response Services: “There are not adequate resources to respond to a derailment, spill or explosion as a result of a rail accident. This is the case throughout the state as well as within SLO County.”
▶ Negative Impacts On Air Quality: “The Project would generate additional particulate matter emissions due to fugitive dust and diesel locomotive engines at the Santa Maria Refinery in an area that already exceeds state standards. It would (also) generate toxic air emissions that exceed SLO County APCD health risk thresholds for the mainline rail.”
▶ Land Use Conflicts: “One of the principle goals of land use is to ‘permit orderly and beneficial development while protecting the character of neighborhoods and communities, and the social and economic vitality of the County.’
“The proposed Project is in conflict with this land use goal because it allows for expansion of a use that generates negative and toxic side effects for human health and safety.”
“This project infringes upon an existing buffer area which separates the incompatible uses -- refinery operations and the single family homes and agricultural uses.”
23. P66 Declines To Appeal To The California Coastal Commission - April ‘17:
After County Supervisors rejected P66’s appeal, the company had the opportunity to also appeal to the California Coastal Commission. However, twice before, the Commission’s staff had advised the County not to approve the project.
Given the Commission’s stance, P66 obviously felt the odds were against them. They therefore let the time for appeal lapse, and that avenue was closed to them. ____________________________________________________________________________________
24. P66 Asks Officials To Allow Increased Crude-By-Ship Delivery To Their Bay Area Marine Terminal.
The Plan Also Includes A Reduction In The Delivery Of Crude Oil By Pipeline - June '17:
P66’s Nipomo Mesa/Santa Maria refinery sends semi-refined crude
via pipeline to its sister refinery in Rodeo (Bay Area). That plant also
receives crude by ocean-going tankers.
In June, P66 proposed increasing the number of ships per year from
59 to 135, more than doubling the tankers delivering crude to Rodeo.
According to KQED:
“The company says the extra tanker deliveries would replace crude oil currently delivered by pipeline. The move away from pipeline comes after officials in SLO County rejected the company’s proposal to transport oil by train to its refinery there.”
The speculation is that the crude brought in by additional ships would be Canadian tar sands ... the same crude that would have been carried by P66’s rail tankers. Whether P66's request for additional crude-by-ships will be approved, is TBD.
25. Settlement Reached Between SLO County & P66; The County Gives Up Nothing; The Planning Commissioners’ & Supervisors’ Rejection Stands - October ‘17
After months of delay, SLO County (and the environmental groups who had been “intervenors” in P66's lawsuit), came to an agreement with P66. Key items ...
- The lawsuit was dropped. P66 no longer legally disputed the ESHA issues it had been claiming.
Should P66 wish to apply for another land use permit for its property, the
County would make another, new investigation/ determination whether
ESHA exists at that time.
In that eventuality, the County may use information that was
generated during the denied project application.
- The County’s denial remained firm. The rail terminal would not
be constructed, and P66’s tar sands oil trains would not be traversing
California’s coast heading to the Nipomo Mesa.
The severe threats to our citizens, businesses and the environment throughout California were over at last!