Phillips 66 wants SLO County to ignore oil train explosions in deciding on refinery expansion

What’s the scope of a local planning commission authority?  When that commission is considering construction project approval at an oil refinery to enable five oil trains (each a mile long) arrive per week at that refinery, does the local planning commission have the authority to consider issues outside on-site safety and on-site environmental control?  What about risks to communities along the rail lines?  Oil trains do derail and often explode with intense fires.  And what about the negative impact of gasoline/diesel consumption?  Crude oil and its byproducts are extremely toxic, carcinogenic, and do serious harm to the environment and climate.   The real problem is dependence on fossil fuels, and the impact of fossil fuel consumption, not oil train explosions.

In San Luis Obispo County (California), Phillips 66 owns a refinery in Santa Maria and hopes to expand its rail yard to accommodate crude oil deliveries by train.  This process has been going on all over the country – increased oil production from fracking in North Dakota and other oil shale fields has unleashed a torrent of crude oil shipping by rail.  Occasionally those trains derail, and thanks to the sort of cargo there is often an explosion and fire.  About a year ago I covered a meeting in San Jose where some activist groups raised awareness of the upstream impact of crude oil shipments.  The likely transport route for oil going to Santa Maria would pass through downtown San Jose, and through a bunch of backyards and other cities.  In response the City of San Jose issued a statement decrying the danger to other communities if the refinery expansion goes through.

The theory San Jose presented is that, even though the refinery expansion is a local project, there is potential impact along the whole route of delivering the crude oil to that refinery.  An oil train could derail anywhere along that route, and given the cargo on oil trains the derailment is likely to result in fire and explosion.

So far most oil train derailments occurred in remote areas.  What if one happened in the downtown of a major city?  The required mandatory evacuation zone is a 1-mile area.

Today and tomorrow the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission is holding hearings on the Santa Maria project.  Some friends of mine traveled there, and and other groups plan to hold a protest inside and outside the meeting.

According to local news reporting, Phillips 66 filed a letter with the planning commission responding to a County Staff report which recommends denial of the rail yard expansion.   According to the New Times report,

The staff report recommends the commission deny the project based on a number of factors, including concerns over the environmental impacts of the project and increased train activity, as well as the potential for the trains to derail, causing leaks, fires, or even explosions.

In other words, the issues I raised above.  The Phillips 66 response is to strongly disagree, and state that SLO County Staff “suggest conclusions contrary to law” in its report.

Saying that oil train safety was the purview of the federal government and not the commission, the Phillips 66 response said “As important as these questions are, they are not before the Planning Commission in this project. The United States Constitution and federal law places those questions in the hands of the federal government. And the federal government has established comprehensive programs that regulate the railroads in a way that is consistent across the country.”

In other words, Phillips 66 is telling the Commission to not consider the full impact of their decision.

Whatever is the best course for this decision, what Phillips 66 seeks to do is divide the decision making authority.  One Commission can consider one aspect, another Commission can consider another aspect, and so on.  Who, though, is responsible for deciding the merits of the entire project?

Clearly if SLO County allows this to go through, there is potential impact on communities far from their area of authority.  And, the impact is not just due to potential oil train derailments.  The impact is also from consumption of the products of that refinery.

There is no Commission I’m aware of that would consider the impact of the entire system.  If that Commission existed it would have to weigh the impacts and benefits of the whole system.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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  1. Dave,

    Last time I checked… Santa Maria is in Santa Barbara County, not San Luis Obispo County. Where is the oil being shipped from, to arrive in Santa Maria? Most accidents happen on railroads tracks with sharp curves. If the oil is coming from the Bay area or the Los Angeles area, the rail lines are going to be pretty damn straight, and risk of derailing pretty low. Petroleum based oil does not ignite and burn that easily, which is why it needs to be refined into lighter distillates to do so.

    Try and be a little bit less biased against conventional oil, and ICE based cars, which are the vast majority of cars out there, and cover both sides of the story in your reporting.

    • Fossil fuels, what you call conventional oil, is simply a bad idea. There’s a zillion reasons to stop using fossil fuels.

      I agree, the derailments I’ve looked at involved corners. For example the Galena IL derailment a year ago happened along an otherwise straight stretch of railroad, but was where it went from single track (while crossing a bridge) to a four-track situation. The train had to curve over to the fourth track, and derailed in that curve.

      The crude oil from the Bakken has been so explosive because of the additives used in extracting that oil from the shale.

      For the location of the site – it’s actually in Nipomo, and the EIR document from SLO County describes the location as the south-west corner of the county. Santa Maria is just a couple miles away and there might be a county boundary in-between that isn’t shown on either Google Maps or Apple Maps.

  2. Crude oil from Bakken, is a very sweet, light crude oil. It requires very little refining to make into light and middle distillates like diesel fuel and gasoline. It also creates a very high yield of gallons of diesel and gasoline per barrel of oil. These are very desireable features in crude oil. What they are pumping into the ground isn’t increasing the flash point of the oil.

    It’s the nature of the quality of the oil that comes out of the ground there that makes it so desirable, there is very little refining necessary to get it to suitable end product for the consumer, which lowers the cost of production.

    Your other option is to refine to finished product as close to the well head as is safely possible, and ship that out by rail.

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