Big Oil took a hit earlier this month, when the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission rejected an oil-by-rail plan that has garnered statewide concerns.
By a 3-2 vote, the commission shot down a Phillips 66 proposal that would extend the Union Pacific railroad to include a route to a 1,800-acre refinery in San Luis Obispo. The trains would haul 2.2 million gallons of crude oil through or near many populated urban environments, including Levi’s stadium, Santa Clara University, and Diridon and Tamien stations in downtown San Jose. Critics said running three 80-car trains per week through such a crowded corridor would pose a public health risk, as the oil being transported is especially volatile.
The two-week period for Phillips 66 to appeal closed Wednesday. Two appeals were received by the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building, one from Phillips 66 and another from private citizen James Edward, both arguing that the commission incorrectly applied provisions of the County’s Coastal Land Use Ordinance (CZLUO) regarding Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA). “An ESHA designation fundamentally affects the rules of development under the CZLUO and the refinery site slated for development is/was not Mapped ESHA by the Planning Department,” Phillips 66 argued in its appeal.
First coming to the public’s attention in 2014, Phillips 66’s plans have encountered pushback from environmentalists, concerned residents and elected officials. The San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit ForestEthics estimated that 195,000 people in San Jose would live in or near a potential blast zone, if the oil train proposal is approved.
In a memo to city staff, Betsy Shotwell, San Jose’s intergovernmental relations director, said that approximately 24,500 comment letters were sent to San Luis Obispo County regarding the rail plan’s environmental impact report, and “only about 150 supported the proposal.”
The oil the tankers transport is unrefined and poses more danger, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. If the heavier, mile-long trains were to derail, the potential explosion could result in extensive property damage and fires that can burn over a period of days. Unlike rural locations where oil accidents have occurred in the recent past, such as West Virginia, San Jose is densely populated and it would be much more difficult to put out a blast zone fire. Federal records show that oil trains spilled more than a million gallons of fuel in 2013.
Despite reassurances from Phillips 66, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission decided the risk of emissions, oil spills and potential explosions outweighed arguments in favor of the crude oil rail fleets.
That county’s Board of Supervisors will now schedule a future hearing for the appeals. Considerations for the plan will not likely be heard until next year.
Phillips 66 officials have stated that the proposed project would benefit the local and regional economy during construction, despite projecting just eight to 12 new employment positions in the future.