SLO Planning Commission rejects Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal

The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

To a standing ovation by opponents of Phillips 66 Co.’s oil-by-rail plan, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted Wednesday to reject the project that had gained statewide attention.

The 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Don Campbell and Jim Harrison dissenting, came as a bit of a surprise after a straw vote to deny the project had failed in May. Commissioner Jim Irving joined Commissioners Eric Meyer and Ken Topping on Wednesday to deny the plan.

Meyer read an impassioned five-page statement explaining his opposition, including the need to move away from fossil fuels and the massive opposition the project has garnered statewide.

“How can you ignore the actual pleas of our neighboring representatives who represent more than 10 million citizens (in California),” he said. “You are willing to accept the possibility of a death, or 20, or 100, yet every representative of the cities around you have said it’s not OK … so this oil company can achieve a higher margin.

“This project will not change the trajectory of oil in this nation.”

Phillips 66 had sought approval to build a 1.3-mile rail spur from its Nipomo Mesa refinery to the main rail line so it could receive crude oil by train. The refinery now gets its crude by pipeline. The proposal called for deliveries from three 80-car trains per week, with each train hauling about 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.

The proposal had pitted Phillips 66 and its supporters, who said the project was safe and would provide jobs, against residents and officials in cities on the rail line across the state who said they feared a derailment that could devastate their communities.

Topping said he opposed the plan because he believes it is inconsistent with county general plan policies dealing with safety.

“To be consistent, the plan would have to bring about a net reduction in harmful effects on people through offsets, which our consultant has said is not really possible,” Topping said.

Irving, who became the swing vote on the project, said he believes it would help Phillips 66 stay competitive but added: “I don’t think the case has been made that we can override the recommendations of our staff and the county, so I will join Meyer and Topping in voting against it.”

On the other side of the debate, Commissioner Jim Harrison was more to the point in his remarks: “I know there’s a lot of people opposed to this project. I’m not. There’s nothing keeping these trains from running up and down the track. The last 35 years we’ve had a train running up and down the track.”

Harrison said he would prefer oil arriving by train rather than by trucks.

Campbell was equally brief in his comments, noting that he’s a strong believer in capitalism and noted that several refineries in Southern California have unloading facilities for trains. He also said commissioners were not going to stop trains that already bring oil through the county.

Phillips 66 maintenance superintendent Jim Anderson said company officials would be discussing the possibility of an appeal.

If they do appeal, the plan would go to San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, which probably wouldn’t consider it before next year, county planning staff said.

In a separate vote, the Planning Commission agreed unanimously to send the conditions of approval that they vetted over several meetings to the Board of Supervisors, regardless of their vote on the overall project.

Irving made that request, explaining to his fellow commissioners that if an appeal is made, “I want it very clear what our stance is on these conditions of approval.”

In May, a move to deny the project failed on a 3-2 vote, with Harrison, Irving and Campbell voting “no.” The commission directed planning staff to return with conditions for approving the project.

Environmental groups and local opponents hailed the commission’s decision Wednesday, even as they noted their fight is far from over.

“Here’s one for the people,” said Martin Akel, a member of Mesa Refinery Watch, a group that opposes the rail-spur project. “The commissioners got it finally. We finally beat back a major business institution that only had its self-interests in mind, not the people.”

Phillips 66 company officials have said the project would benefit the local and regional economy during construction, by using a majority of local construction workers and buying materials in the area, and later by adding eight to 12 new employees and likely paying more in property tax.

In addition, they maintain the project would enhance the competitiveness and vitality of the refinery by increasing its access to crude markets across North America that are available by rail.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

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