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Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project moves closer to approval

San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission Chairman Don Campbell listens as Commissioner Jim Irving speaks. The group considered the application Monday by Phillips 66 for oil delivery by train. Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.
San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission Chairman Don Campbell listens as Commissioner Jim Irving speaks. The group considered the application Monday by Phillips 66 for oil delivery by train. Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission appears to be on its way to approving a scaled-back Phillips 66 rail spur project.

A motion to deny the project failed in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Jim Harrison, Jim Irving and Don Campbell voting no. Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.

At its September hearing, the commission will consider the terms of approval for the project, including a requirement that it be limited to three trains a week — or 150 trains a year.

“I need a very complete project description,” Irving said.

Although the commission did not take a vote on the project, a majority of the commissioners spoke in favor of it. Irving, who is likely to be the swing vote, said he would support the scaled-back project.

“I really look at this as a land-use issue,” he said. “This could be a benefit to the county.”

Under the proposal, three cars a week would deliver 2.2 million gallons of crude oil to the refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. Phillips 66 had originally proposed five trains a week but scaled it back to three trains a week to address environmental concerns such as air quality.

The main concern is safety. Although it is considered unlikely, a train could derail and cause a fiery crash.

Commissioners Campbell and Harrison also spoke in favor of the rail spur project. “Derailments are a tragedy, but the risk is greater to haul the oil by truck,” Harrison said.

“There is going to be increased traffic on these rails no matter what we do here,” Harrison said.

Commissioners Eric Meyer and Ken Topping spoke against the project. They cited safety as their main concern.

“Where is the benefit of accepting that risk?” Meyer asked. “I don’t see it.”

The project calls for installing a 1.3-mile rail spur with five parallel tracks to accommodate the large oil trains. The oil company says it needs the rail spur to keep the Nipomo Mesa refinery and its 200 jobs operating.

Local supplies of oil are dwindling, and the refinery will not be viable without the train shipments, oil company officials say.

Any final decision by the Planning Commission is certain to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

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