Tom Fulks

District 3 voters could determine the fate of Phillips 66 rail spur project

There’s probably no one with a riskier bet riding on the 3rd District San Luis Obispo County supervisor election Tuesday than Phillips 66.

The fate of the petrol giant’s oil-train gamble at its Nipomo Mesa refinery rests in the hands of not just the new Board of Supervisors, but one supervisor in particular.

Phillips needs a 1.3-mile rail spur to offload Canadian crude from three nearly mile-long, 80-tanker trains per week, each carrying 2.2 million gallons of crude.

The trains would traverse the heart of the county’s densest population, from Paso Robles to Arroyo Grande, requiring entire communities to endure the safety risks so Phillips alone can reap the financial rewards.

The county Planning Commission denied the project, which Phillips appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The appeal most certainly will be heard by a new board in 2017.

That’s good for Phillips, because the current board could well turn it down.

Tea Party favorites Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton pretty much could be counted on to vote for Phillips. They’ve rarely met development projects they didn’t support — except the Laetitia Vineyard luxury housing project near Compton’s rural Arroyo Grande home.

Compton voted against Laetitia after lamenting personal water concerns in her neighborhood.

Liberal supervisors — Bruce Gibson, not up for re-election, and Adam Hill, who is — probably would vote against Phillips, given their votes against other ill-conceived projects such as Laetitia and the Las Pilitas gravel quarry near Santa Margarita.

Current 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham, often the teeth-gnashing swing voter, might well vote “no” also — as he did against the quarry and Laetitia.

Because Mecham won’t be on the board when the Phillips appeal is heard, his vote will fall to either John Peschong or Steve Martin, both running to succeed him.

Peschong has promised to recuse himself if he’s on the board, because his public relations firm was paid $262,000 by Phillips to promote their project. Martin has said he’d probably oppose Phillips.

Neither vote helps Phillips — its fate rests with the District 3 supervisor.

Phillips presumably has done the math: They’ve got two “yes” votes (Arnold and Compton) and one “no” (Gibson). Depending on who wins in District 1, they’ve got either an “abstain” from Peschong or a “no” from Martin.

Let’s assume Hill is re-elected. Peschong’s recusal would leave the board with a potential 2-2 tie. If Martin wins, it’s likely 3-2 against Phillips.

Either way, the Phillips project is dead, because it wouldn’t meet the three-vote minimum to override the Planning Commission’s denial.

The X factor is Hill’s opponent, Dan Carpenter, a self-said political independent whose website states: “In February 2015, I joined my colleagues on the SLO City Council in opposing the additional trains passing through our community. … I continue to oppose the additional oil trains.”

But hold on: Alan Thomas, a 3rd District voter, isn’t buying it. His letter to The Tribune in May claimed Carpenter told him that, while “candidate” Carpenter opposes oil trains, “elected” Carpenter might not oppose Phillips, citing property rights concerns.

“That’s called a ‘waffle,’ ” Thomas wrote. “You can’t claim you are opposed to something to get votes BEFORE an election, while also claiming you aren’t sure how you would vote AFTER the election.”

Then there’s Carpenter’s campaign optics.

Carpenter’s campaign openly embraces conservative orthodoxy. He touts a list of conservative Republican, pro-development endorsers. His website features a photo of himself sandwiched in a “thumbs-up” pose between Arnold and Compton.

Carpenter mugged at a COLAB event for a photo with Debbie Peterson, whose accusations of intimidation against Hill were debunked by The Tribune.

That’s an odd bunch of friends for a district that’s liberal for decades — Kurt Kupper in the 1970s, Evelyn Delaney in the ’80s, Peg Pinard in the ’90s, then Hill beginning in 2006. The lone exception was conservative one-termer Jerry Lenthall, wedged between Pinard and Hill.

Phillips, doing the arithmetic, has to be betting there are two Carpenters: the one who says he opposes oil trains, and the one who cavorts with extreme Tea Party conservatives.

If they are to win this hand, Phillips needs a pair of jacks: First, “candidate” Carpenter must win. Then, “elected” Carpenter must vote its way.

Without that, there will be no rail spur project, no oil trains.

Without oil trains, Phillips must rethink its California strategy, because the rail spur is integral to its larger refining network, anchored in the Bay Area.

In Phillips’ oil train gamble, District 3 voters in fact hold all the cards.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.