Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail project is too big a risk

A northbound oil train sits idled on tracks, stopped by protesters blocking the track ahead, in Everett, Washington, on Sept. 2, 2014.
A northbound oil train sits idled on tracks, stopped by protesters blocking the track ahead, in Everett, Washington, on Sept. 2, 2014. Associated Press file

We opposed Phillips 66 Co.’s application for a rail spur extension at its Nipomo Mesa refinery when it went to the Planning Commission last year. We see no reason to change our position now that it’s headed to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on March 13.

Again, it comes down to safety.

That was the primary reason we recommended the Planning Commission reject the project, which would allow Phillips to bring up to three mile-long trains per week into the county hauling flammable crude oil.

It’s why we now urge the Board of Supervisors to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision.

Despite a mounting focus on rail safety — especially after the 2013 oil train derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people — accidents continue to occur.

Consider: In 2014 — after oil production in Canada and North Dakota took off — there were 141 “unintentional releases” of crude oil from rail incidents, according to an NBC News analysis. Before 2012, the United States had been experiencing an average of 25 oil-by-rail spills per year.

One of the 2014 “incidents” occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, where 17 cars carrying crude oil derailed. Three cars plunged into the James River, spilling 25,000 gallons of oil.

More recent examples: Last June in Mosier, Oregon, a Union Pacific train derailed and caught fire, forcing evacuations and setting fire to nearby woods. In November, a Union Pacific train hauling liquid propane jumped the tracks near a small town in southern Minnesota, forcing a mandatory evacuation.

We urge the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to uphold the Planning Commission’s denial of Phillips 66’s application to extend a rail spur to accommodate up to three mile-long oil trains per week.

The Fraser Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Canada, found that rail is “over 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence when compared to pipelines.” Though, to put that in perspective, the institute also concludes that “transporting oil and gas by pipeline or rail is, in general, quite safe.”

The likelihood of an accident is slight, but given that these oil trains would be routed through major population centers — which is why dozens of city councils and school boards from the Bay Area to Los Angeles have opposed it — why take the risk?

On its website, Phillips 66 says accommodating rail shipments would allow it to import “competitively priced crude oil” from out of state, rather than continuing to rely on local crude transported to the facility via pipeline.

“The proposed change will help the refinery, and the approximately 200 permanent jobs it provides, remain viable under increasingly challenging business conditions,” the company’s website says.

Nowhere does it state that it will be forced out of business if the application is denied.

Further, shipments by rail could have a ripple effect on the local oil industry.

According to the project’s environmental impact report, over the short term some locally produced oil “could be displaced and might have to be trucked to other refinery destinations,” though it adds that “it is speculative as to what, if any, local crude oil would be displaced.”

If it ever were to occur, it would be ludicrous.

Think about it: Oil from northern Santa Barbara County would be trucked to a Los Angeles refinery, rather than transported by pipeline to the nearby Nipomo Mesa. Meanwhile, Phillips would be bringing in crude oil by rail from hundreds of miles of away?

The Santa Maria refinery was originally built in the 1930s to process crude from the surrounding area and, as such, it’s been a valuable resource — one that we strongly support. It’s generated jobs and tax revenue, and Phillips employees have generously contributed volunteer hours and donations to community.

However, allowing the refinery to morph into a receiving site for oil trains that would pass through major population centers would put millions of people at unnecessary risk.

The Planning Commission, which devoted several days to deliberations and public testimony, made the right decision when it denied the project. We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to uphold that decision.

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.

If you go

The public hearing on the Phillips 66 oil spur project is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. March 13 at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers at 1055 Monterey St. and will continue every day through March 17, if necessary.

If you want to speak, you must sign up on the first hearing day, March 13, between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the Fremont Theatre. Those who do not sign up the first day will not be allowed to do so later.

Seating inside the board chambers is capped at 160; overflow seating will be located in the conference room outside the chambers, in the lobby area. There also will be overflow seating at the Fremont Theatre, but on March 13 only. The hearing will be streamed for viewing at those locations.

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