Proposed rail project could bring dangerous oil shipments to SLO County

January 22, 2014 

After three fiery train accidents since last summer involving crude oil from the Bakken shale formation that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a nationwide safety alert this month. A little-known rail spur project now proposed for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery located on Nipomo Mesa would bring some of this Bakken crude to the Central Coast by rail, if it is approved by our county Planning Commission.

On crude oil feedstock, the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report states, “The most likely sources would be the Bakken field of North Dakota and Canada.” However, in a recent public statement, Phillips 66 is now saying Bakken crude oil is not well suited for processing at its Santa Maria Refinery, and therefore only a “small amount” would be processed. However, what’s in the EIR is what’s in the project.

While the Phillips 66 refinery has been operating safely for many years, importing California crude by pipeline, and is a welcome employer, active in the community, this proposal to begin using rail cars to supply crude oil could present a significant danger to cities and neighborhoods of the Central Coast.

Per the Draft EIR, up to five weekly trains, each hauling as many as 80 tank cars, would deliver the crude oil. On the way to Nipomo Mesa, trains from the north would transit population centers in Paso Robles, Atascadero and Santa Margarita, then negotiate Cuesta Grade to San Luis Obispo, wind down Price Canyon and through the Five Cities. From the South, trains would pass through Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Guadalupe.

The proposed project is identified as a “rail spur extension ,” but represents an entirely new method of product delivery involving new types of volatile crude oil from new locations. Day or night, nearly mile-long trains carrying 2 million gallons of crude oil would pass through our communities. A rail accident, arising out of numerous possible causes, could impact the public health and financial well-being of our region — affecting housing, business, agriculture, tourism, employment and education.

According to the Association of American Railroads, historically more than 99.99 percent of rail hazmat shipments have been delivered safely. However, in the last five years, the number of tankers of crude oil transported by train in the U.S. has grown from under 10,000 to about 400,000 as a result of new oilfield extraction methods. Even if historical safety statistics could be maintained under the increased loading, the vast expansion in hazardous materials moved through our region can’t help but affect the character of life on the Central Coast.

Recent explosive rail accidents with loss of life, urgent evacuation of nearby cities, damage to property and difficult recovery, plus the long delay in upgrading U.S. rail tank-car safety standards and modernizing old equipment, and the recent national safety alert, all show us that the U.S. is not ready to safely transport the volume of crude oil produced by new horizontal drilling and fracking techniques. Yet communities like ours are being asked to shoulder the potentially disastrous consequences and environmental problems that result from our rush to exploit the Bakken reserves.

For information on recent rail accidents, search The Tribune website or Internet for train derailments at Lac-Megantic, Quebec; Aliceville, Ala.; and Casselton, N.D. For the most recent derailment last month at Casselton, watch the YouTube video of one explosion during the hours-long event.

Ironically, much of the enormous increase in domestic oil production will not ultimately go to achieving U.S. energy independence as is commonly claimed, but will be exported overseas. Oil interests are now fighting to lift the ban on crude oil exports. On the East Coast, the refined Bakken product, not subject to the ban, is currently being shipped to Europe. According to Bloomberg reports, “If the railway networks on the U.S. West Coast are completed, the region’s refiners will be able to boost exports to meet rising needs in Asia.”

We ask our county supervisors, our planning commissioners, our mayors and our city councils to pay very close attention to this project. The refinery has been safely supplied by pipeline for many years, but a decision to approve this alternate method of oil delivery has safety ramifications for cities and towns in every Central Coast county. In short, the railspur project on the mesa has regional impacts that cannot be mitigated per the Draft EIR when Bakken crude oil is sourced.

Contact your district supervisor and planning commissioner to make your voices heard — main rail lines run through all five districts. Contact information is at the county web site. See “Santa Maria Refinery Rail Project” at http://www.slocounty.ca.gov/planning.htm  .

The period for written public comment ends 4:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 27. Attend the County Planning Commission Hearing, tentatively scheduled for April 24 at the Government Center.

Martin Akel is a business consultant; Linda Reynolds is a realtor; Sam Saltoun a professional engineer; and Paul Stolpman is former director of U.S. EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs.

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