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Phillips 66 won’t appeal oil-by-rail decision, but the fight’s not over yet

Phillips 66 will continue a court fight in hopes of one day shipping crude oil by train to its refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
Phillips 66 will continue a court fight in hopes of one day shipping crude oil by train to its refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. Tribune

Phillips 66 won’t appeal San Luis Obispo County’s decision rejecting its oil-by-rail plan to the California Coastal Commission, but it will continue the fight in court, a company spokesman said Monday.

The energy company had until Friday to appeal the Board of Supervisors’ decision denying a proposal to build the infrastructure — including a rail spur and unloading dock — that would allow delivery of 6.6 million gallons of crude oil each on as many as three trains per week from throughout North America to its Nipomo Mesa refinery.

The project had been widely opposed by dozens of cities, counties, school districts, residents and environmental groups up and down the rail line in California, who saw the oil shipments as potential “bomb trains” in the event of a derailment.

“The window is closed, and they did not file an appeal. The Board of Supervisors’ decision stands,” said Cassidy Teufel, a senior energy scientist with the Coastal Commission.

Staff with the Coastal Commission has supported the county’s staff recommendation to deny the project and agreed with the county’s findings to deny the project, which may have contributed to the Phillips 66 decision.

Phillips 66 had said the county staff wrongly interpreted a Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance regarding environmentally sensitive habitat area. In a public letter that Teufel sent to the county on behalf of the Coastal Commission, he requested that the board reject Phillips 66’s interpretation of the ordinance and deny the company’s application.

The window is closed, and they did not file an appeal. The Board of Supervisors’ decision stands.

The window is closed, and they did not file an appeal. The Board of Supervisors’ decision stands

The board’s decision was appealed to the Coastal Commission by private resident Jeff Edwards, who said he disagreed with the county’s findings for denial. He is considering withdrawing his appeal, since Phillips 66 did not appeal, Teufel said.

“They knew they were going into strong headwinds (if Phillips filed an appeal with the Coastal Commission). Now they’re going to try to make an end run around on a technicality,” said Laurance Shinderman, a volunteer with the rail spur-opposition group, Mesa Refinery Watch Group.

“A good neighbor wouldn’t do that,” he said.

In an amended petition filed against the county on March 22 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, Phillips 66 contends the county missed a filing deadline over the issue of environmentally sensitive habitat and also that the zoning law is unconstitutional because it doesn’t allow Phillips an opportunity to be heard.

If Judge Barry LaBarbera agrees with the company, the county Planning Department would have to revisit its findings, triggering a new land-use decision. His decision could be challenged to an appellate court.

Linda Krop, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center, which intervened in the lawsuit, said the decision to continue in court without appealing to the Coastal Commission is confusing, given that LaBarbera already told the company it needs to exhaust its administrative options before taking the county to court, which would include appealing to the Coastal Commission.

“We’re very surprised, perplexed,” Krop said. “It could be the end of their project. Not going through the Coastal Commission, they seem to have abandoned an opportunity to revive their project.”

A hearing in the civil case is scheduled for July 3.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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