Phillips 66 appeals oil-by-rail plan to SLO County supervisors

Why opponents of the Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project don't want it built

A member of Mesa Refinery Watch, which is opposed to Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal, shares some of his concerns about the plan, including a disaster scenario and public health issues.
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A member of Mesa Refinery Watch, which is opposed to Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal, shares some of his concerns about the plan, including a disaster scenario and public health issues.

Phillips 66 Co. has appealed the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s rejection of its oil-by-rail plan to the county Board of Supervisors, setting the stage for lengthy and passionate hearings over a project that has drawn statewide attention.

But Phillips 66, in its appeal filed Wednesday afternoon, also is asking county supervisors to set aside the issue while it seeks an order from San Luis Obispo Superior Court that would direct the county planning department to correct what Phillips 66 says are misapplications of county land-use rules.

In addition, a second appeal of the Phillips 66 plan was filed by Los Osos resident Jeff Edwards. His appeal states that planning commissioners, by denying the project, failed to establish public access to the coastline that could be needed if the Pier Avenue entrance to the Oceano Dunes is ever closed.

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

The plan 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.

Phillips 66 officials have said the project would benefit the local and regional economy during construction and later with the addition of eight to 12 new employees and likely more property tax paid to the county.

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.

“The Santa Maria refinery’s location restricts its ability to receive a steady supply of crude oil to refine,” the appeal states. Phillips 66 was not able to take advantage of declining crude oil prices because it is isolated from national and international crude markets, and “there are practical limits to the distance that crude can be trucked and remain competitive.”

Phillips 66 also argues the county violated one of its own ordinances by accepting the company’s application before planners determined the project site had environmentally sensitive habitat areas.

Because of this, Phillips states, the company has been forced to file a petition in court seeking an order to direct county planners to determine there are no so-called unmapped environmentally sensitive habitat areas.

The petition, filed Wednesday in Superior Court, also asks the court to direct the Planning Commission to set aside its findings for denial and reconsider the Phillips 66 application. A case management conference is set for Dec. 5.

In the meantime, environmental groups are gearing up for another fight. One such group, 350 Silicon Valley, is part of a statewide coalition of climate organizations focused on stopping the Phillips 66 project and plans to give county supervisors numerous reasons to reject the proposal, said Stew Plock, development manager for the group.

The Planning Commission voted 3-2 on Oct. 5 to reject the project, with Commissioners Don Campbell and Jim Harrison dissenting. Commissioner Jim Irving joined Commissioners Eric Meyer and Ken Topping on Wednesday to deny the plan.

The vote came as a bit of a surprise after a straw vote to deny the project had failed in May.

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.”

In a separate vote, the Planning Commission agreed unanimously to send supervisors the conditions of approval that the commission vetted over several meetings.

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.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO