Advertising executives know that sex sells; so does fear. Fear is a hot commodity when it comes to the Phillips 66 project to build a rail extension on its Santa Maria Refinery property located on the Nipomo Mesa. It’s working well in a cynical campaign to terrorize the public with the specter of exploding rail tank cars carrying innocuous crude oil to the Santa Maria Refinery.
I say innocuous because trains carrying crude oil have been transiting the county for decades, from the oil fields of San Ardo in southern Monterey County to refining facilities in Los Angeles. It’s happening now. It’s been happening several times a week for 20 years, and nobody notices. It’s the same type of crude that Phillips 66 wants to bring in — high-sulfur crude similar to local crude oil for which the Santa Maria Refinery was specially designed.
San Ardo crude has a vapor pressure of about 1.5 psi (pounds per square inch); vapor pressure determines its volatility. The diluent (dilbit) added to the Canadian tar sands to reduce its viscosity has a psi of about 3.9. When mixed with the heavy crude Phillips 66 is attempting to transport by rail, the volatility is around 4 to 4.5, considered to be in the lower volatility range. This is only about a third of the volatility of Bakken crude, which has a psi of 11.5 to 11.8. Anything below 7 psi is considered “not volatile” and is comparable to the Outer Continental Shelf (offshore) crude currently processed at the Santa Maria Refinery that has never posed a problem.
The California Energy Commission documents the decline in state oil production as oil field production diminishes. Accordingly, Phillips 66 and others must find other sources of crude to keep operating. Today, they’re at half capacity, due in part to the shutdown of pipelines (ordered by regulators) that pump oil north to the Santa Maria Refinery. The pipelines are owned by an independent company that has a poor maintenance record, severely impacting all California oil refinery facilities, but especially the Phillips 66’s facility on the Nipomo Mesa.
Some say the refinery provides no local benefit — just profits for Phillips 66.
That facility provides $2.5 million in taxes, a $43 million payroll, generates $31 million in economic activity and creates 1,200 local jobs. The rail terminus is projected to add an additional $600,000 to local tax revenue. How’s that “no benefit”?
The fear campaign has convinced thousands of Californians that blocking the Phillips project will protect them from a rail disaster involving crude oil. It won’t. Oil trains routinely transit the county to other destinations. Even more shipments are to be expected as demand is up and projected to continue to rise over the next 20 years, according to the California Energy Commission.
Numerous city and county government bodies have passed resolutions asking that SLO County not approve the Phillips 66 project in the hopes that will halt the “bomb trains.” It won’t, as the “evacuation corridors” and “blast zones” weren’t established for trains carrying lowvolatility crude oil. They were created for really bad actors, such as liquid petroleum gas and other extremely flammable products transported under high pressure. LP gas, when released to the atmosphere, vaporizes with a 600-1 expansion ratio. An LPG explosion is catastrophic and known as a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion), which can hurl a multi-ton rail car nearly a mile, creating a fireball with a quarter-mile ground flash capable of inflicting second- and third-degree burns on anyone in the open up to 1,000 feet distant. That is the reason for the “blast zones.”
Tank cars hauling LPG, along with many other extremely hazardous products, routinely transit county rail lines on freight trains passing through SLO. They aren’t the crude oil trains you’ve been told about, and they’re not in any way related to the Phillips 66 project. They’ve been coming through for many decades and aren’t subject to state or local authorities. Mostly we ignore them.
We’re told there’s insufficient emergency response or hazmat capability. Not true. The county has a Hazardous Materials Team, most recently employed in Atascadero two weeks ago. Fire departments have combined resources to support a multi-agency response and routinely incorporate mutual aid for any incident, even routine structure fires. Phillips 66 and the railroads conduct joint training with fire departments, with Phillips 66 funding training for local responders at national training sites. Some local fire personnel are scheduled for such training in November.
More can be done. The state has identified gaps in emergency response capability, such as caches of firefighting foam used for rail disasters. Union Pacific could provide a cache in SLO County to fill the gap, and state officials could lobby the Federal Railway Administration for slower speeds in incorporated areas, down to 35 mph maximum. Physics plays a role in emergencies; slower speed lessens the likelihood of rail accidents and container ruptures.
Sadly, the resolutions passed by so many provide not safety, but a false sense of security.