Many in Santa Barbara County heaved a huge sigh of relief when the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission voted down Phillips 66’s rail spur project that would have given the green light to trainloads of volatile crude from Canada and throughout the United States. Wednesday’s hearing was a tense one, said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), which represented the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and Center for Biological Diversity against the proposal during the three-year process.
The Phillips 66 facility in Nipomo, called the Santa Maria Refinery, is seeking permission to move up to 250 trains annually, consisting of about 80 tanker cars carrying about 50,000 barrels of crude to the refinery from the north and south. The prospect of derailment of these trains prompted opposition to the project from about 45 school districts, cities, and counties — including Santa Barbara city and county — and about 20,000 Californians, the EDC stated in a press release. Wednesday was the eighth hearing the SLO Planning Commission had held in order to accommodate all the public speakers, staff information, and reports from Phillips.
“It was so dramatic,” Krop said. “We didn’t know until the very end” which way the swing vote, held by Commissioner Jim Irving, would go. He started off with an appreciation of the comments by the other commissioners, in particular the two opposed to the project, “which usually means they’re going to go the other way,” Krop said. Irving even went so far as to acknowledge the audience, “I know some of you are about to have heart attacks,” she paraphrased, before he finally said the risks outweighed the proposed benefits — a handful of jobs — to whoops, whistles, and applause from those gathered for the four-and-a-half hour meeting.
The SLO Planning Commission decision follows a similar one by Benicia’s City Council in September. The Bay Area city was facing oil trains proposed for Valero Energy’s facility on the Carquinez Strait and an argument from the oil company that trains, being interstate commerce, were regulated by the feds, not by a city. The Surface Transportation Board disagreed, informing Benicia it had the right to rule on Valero’s proposal shortly before its City Council held the vote, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Phillips could file to appeal the decision to the SLO Board of Supervisors in the next couple weeks, Krop explained, which opens another can of worms. The swing seat on the board is contested in November, with the winner anticipated to be John Peschong, who gained 45 percent of the primary vote. He works for a company that does business with Phillips, Krop explained, and he’s said he’ll have to recuse himself from Phillips matters. If Phillips appeals and if the matter holds over to 2017, said Krop, a 2-2 tie at the supervisors would mean a denial.