San Luis Obispo County Says No to Phillips 66 Oil Trains

SLO Clean Energy Crossroads March and Rally March 13, 2017
SLO Clean Energy Crossroads March and Rally in San Luis Obispo, CA on March 13, 2017

On March 14, 2017, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to protect public health and safety by rejecting a Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project.

This is a big win for San Luis Obispo County residents and millions of Californians who live near the railroad tracks that crisscross the state. It shows that “We the People” can influence our elected officials. This is activism 101 in action.

Oil trains already travel around California and some to the Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County. So what is the big deal about one oil-by-rail project?

Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Proposed Rail Spur Extension Project

The following description is intended to give you the gist of the proposed project.

Background

In 1955, when Union Oil built the Santa Maria Refinery in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo County, in the Central Coast region of California, they also owned most of the oil extraction rights in the area. Now, Phillips 66 owns the refinery, but other companies own all the Central Coast oil extraction rights.

The Santa Maria Refinery was designed to process the heavy crude oil that is prevalent in the region around its location. The refinery receives most of its crude oil via pipeline from extraction sites. Once the heavy crude oil is semi-refined, Phillips 66 sends it via pipeline to its refinery in Rodeo, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area. There it is processed into finished petroleum products for sale.

Heavy crude oil extraction in the Central Coast region and other areas of California is declining while production in other parts of North America is rising.

Project Justification

Phillips 66 claims that to remain competitive in the petroleum marketplace they need to able to obtain heavy crude oil from outside of the Central Coast and California. To do this Phillips 66 states that oil trains are the most economically feasible solution for them.

Project Proposal

Currently, a Union Pacific-owned rail line crosses the Santa Maria Refinery property and there is an existing rail spur. However, in order to supply the refinery mostly by oil trains the rail spur would need to be extended and expanded and unloading facilities, pipelines, and storage tanks would need to be built. This would also require changes to refinery operations, which are currently based on receiving most crude oil via pipeline.

Phillips 66’s proposal is to bring five trains consisting of 80 tanker cars carrying heavy crude oil into the Santa Maria Refinery each week. These trains would originate outside California and travel north or south on existing rail lines through California to reach the refinery. Once the project is permitted and built, it is possible that more trains would be added to the schedule.

Oil-by-Rail Opposition

The main opposition to the oil-by-rail project has been focused on the danger to public health and safety.

Heavy crude oil is viscous and highly flammable. An oil train spill could have devastating environmental impacts on people and wildlife and an explosion could be deadly. If an accident occurred in a densely populated area, it could be horrific. Bringing five 1.5 mile-long trains carrying 2.5 million gallons of flammable heavy crude oil up and down California each week increases the risk of a catastrophe.

There is also the long-term danger to public health and safety that we face by continuing to burn oil and other fossil fuels. Why build more oil infrastructure when we need to be reducing oil use and building renewable energy facilities.

Stop Oil Trains Campaign

People from all across California came together to block this oil-by-rail project and we succeeded!

During the past three years, many people have contributed their time and energy to the Stop Oil Trains campaign. People organized events and actions, wrote letters to the editor, created flyers and yard signs, read and commented on the environmental impact report, attended and spoke at public agency meetings, posted on social media, and contacted their local, state, and national elected officials.

I played a tiny part by participating in a rally and a march through downtown San Luis Obispo on March 13, 2017, encouraging the Supervisors to turn down the oil-by-rail project. (If you look closely at the photo above in the middle, under the tree, you can just see my white 350.org baseball cap and the gray “Stop Oil Trains Now” sign I carried around San Luis Obispo).

The point is that you, too, can participate in safeguarding your community or work on issues at the regional, state, national, and even global level.

The amount of time people have available to engage in activism varies widely but almost everyone can carve out time to do something.

Do your kids like making arts and crafts projects? Spend time with your children making signs and posters for a cause you support. Is there an office supply store or printing shop near where you work? Volunteer to get flyers printed during your lunch hour. Are you a whiz at social media? Help set up a Facebook page for an upcoming event. Do you have a cell phone? During a break at work, call one of your elected officials and share your thoughts on an issue that is important to you. Is your schedule open the day of a march or rally? Show up and bring a sign or carry one made by someone else.

Pick a cause you care about and do something in service of that cause.

Inspire other people by sharing your own activism story.

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” —Edward Everett Hale

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Energy Policy Act of 2005 – Fracking and Drinking Water

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 puts the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk by exempting fracking fluids from part of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes - Photo: Kim Sorvig
Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes – Photo: Kim Sorvig

The culprit is a tiny passage entitled Section 322 Hydraulic Fracturing on page 102 of the 551-page Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-58) signed by President George W. Bush on August 8, 2005:

In short, Section 322 exempts fracking fluids and underground storage of natural gas from complying with the underground injection well regulations established by the U.S. EPA to protect our underground drinking water sources, meaning our aquifers.

This post explores events and influences that led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and attempts to explain what Section 322 means in terms of the safety of our drinking water.

Fracking Fluids Endanger Drinking Water

There are over 1 million oil and gas wells spread across the United States. Thousands of more wells will join them as the oil and gas industry attempts to cash in on the current domestic oil and natural gas boom.

Fracking operators choose from hundreds of different chemicals to blend their proprietary (secret) fracking fluids, which may contain substances that are known carcinogens or that pose other significant dangers to human health. Just like any other structure, wells are subject to leaking or failure, fluid spills occur, and accidents happen. This can lead to contaminating the aquifers that millions of people rely on for their drinking water.

Oil and gas industry representatives claim there are no cases of water contamination caused by fracking, but this is a ridiculous statement. There are too many reports of polluted wells and contaminated public water systems near oil and gas fracking operations for it to be coincidental.

Marcellus Shale Fracking Site in Pennsylvania - Photo: Professor Robert Jackson
Marcellus Shale Fracking Site in Pennsylvania – Photo: Professor Robert Jackson

Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

Let’s review the Safe Drinking Water Act and the section affected by the Energy Policy Act, the Underground Injection Control Program.

During the 1970’s, Americans fed up with pollution demanded the U.S. Congress take action to protect their health and wellbeing. Congress responded by passing several major pieces of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

These laws were necessary because businesses and industries of all types had demonstrated that they were either unwilling or incapable of operating in a manner that protected the public’s health and the environment. The federal government stepped in with laws and regulations.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) gives the EPA authority to set effluent and wastewater standards and makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant into U.S. waterways and water bodies unless a permit is obtained.

Building on the CWA, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) authorizes the EPA to establish and enforce national drinking water standards and to establish and enforce regulations to protect underground drinking water sources.

Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA - Photo: Marcellus Protest
Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA – Photo: Marcellus Protest

Underground Injection Control Program

The intent of the Underground Injection Control Program is to prevent underground drinking water sources from being contaminated by fluids injected into underground wells.

The SDWA authorizes the EPA to establish regulations for underground injection wells and gives the states responsibility for issuing or denying injection well permits and enforcing regulations.

Injection wells are used to place fluids underground. These fluids include water, wastewater, non-hazardous liquids, hazardous wastes, brine (salt water), and water mixed with chemicals including those associated with mining, and oil and gas production. Well requirements vary depending on the fluid or fluids being injected.

The Underground Injection Control Program defines an injection well as:

  • A bored, drilled, or driven shaft, or a dug hole that is deeper than it is wide,
  • An improved sinkhole, or
  • A subsurface fluid distribution system.

Next, we will take a look at the task force that eventually led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

National Energy Policy Development Group

In January 2001, just days after being sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush appointed his new Vice President Dick Cheney to lead the National Energy Policy Development Group. The president charged the task force with developing a national energy policy.

At the time, California was in the midst of an energy crisis with rolling blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of businesses across the state. Governor Gray Davis had declared a state of emergency. President Bush referred to the crisis numerous times in his public remarks as he reinforced the need for a national energy policy.

The task force presented its 170-page National Energy Policy Report to the president in May 2001. President Bush forwarded the report to Congress on June 28, 2001 and requested Congress address the items requiring legislative action. Several years later, a national energy policy emerged in the form of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Fracking Well and Wastewater Pit in Cotulla, TX - Photo: Al Braden
Fracking Well and Wastewater Pit in Cotulla, TX – Photo: Al Braden

Energy Policy Act of 2005

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 is a far-reaching law intended “To ensure jobs for our future with secure, affordable, and reliable energy.” It addresses a wide range of topics including energy efficiency, renewable energy, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, vehicle fuels, hydrogen, tax incentives, federal land access, and research studies.

We will concern ourselves with Section 322 Hydraulic Fracturing that endangers our drinking water by amending Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h (d)) .

This is how it appears in the current United State Code (the red text shows the words that were added by the Energy Policy Act).

Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare

Chapter 6A – Public Health Service

Subchapter XII – Safety of Public Water Systems

Part C – Protection of Underground Sources of Drinking Water

Section 300h – Regulations for State Programs

(d) “Underground injection” defined; underground injection endangerment of drinking water sources

For purposes of this part:

(1) Underground injection.— The term “underground injection”—

(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and

(B) excludes—

(i) the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and

(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.

The Halliburton Loophole

From the beginning, there were questions about the suitability of having Dick Cheney head up the National Energy Policy Development Group and possible conflicts of interest due to his relationship with the oil and gas industry.

From 1995 to 2000, just prior to becoming the 46th Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest service providers to the oil and gas industry and currently ranking 103 on the Fortune 500 list with revenue of over $29.4 billion.

Fast forward to 2005, Cheney’s involvement in creating the national energy policy resulted in Section 322 of the Energy Policy Act being dubbed the ‘Halliburton loophole.’

People Carrying "We Cant' Drink Money" Banner during Protest March in Pittsburgh, PA - Photo: Marcellus Protest
People Carrying Banner during Protest March in Pittsburgh, PA – Photo: Marcellus Protest

There is no plausible explanation for exempting fracking fluids from regulation, except that this is what the oil and gas industry wanted. In this instance, apparently the President, Vice President, and Congress forgot whom they are supposed to serve.

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Gasland – The Movies

If you have ever used natural gas to heat your home or water, cook your food, or dry your clothes, the Gasland movies by Josh Fox are a must see. Gasland and Gasland Part II portray the human and environmental cost associated with the U.S. natural gas boom and President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy.

Welcome to Gasland Map - Image: Gasland the Movie
Welcome to Gasland Map – Image: Gasland the Movie

The Movies

In 2008, filmmaker Josh Fox received a letter informing him that his home and 19 acres on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania sit atop the Marcellus Shale Formation (which holds the largest natural gas reserve in the U.S.). The letter stated the natural gas exploration company would pay him around $100,000 if he would allow them to set up shop on his land and drill beneath it using the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Fox grabbed his camera, hit the road, and began filming Gasland.

He traveled around the country talking with and filming people who were already living with natural gas fracking operations on their land, under it, across the street, upstream, or in the neighborhood.

Gasland viewers will see and hear real-life accounts of contaminated drinking water, toxic fumes, explosions, illnesses, and destroyed property values. The movie follows the attempts of these people to get help from the corporations doing the fracking and the government agencies responsible for protecting their health and the environment.

Five years later, Fox hit the road again to film Gasland Part II in which he revisited some of the people he met during the first movie, interviewed then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and was arrested while attempting to film a Congressional hearing.

The Bottom Line

Josh Fox is the founder and producing artistic director of the International WOW Company. He has written, directed, and produced pieces for the stage and screen. Fox garnered media attention and accolades with the release of Gasland in 2010. The film won several awards and received a 2011 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. The follow up movie, Gasland Part II was released in 2013.

The Gasland movies show real people in real settings. They are informative, occasionally shocking, and often heartrending.

The stories of the people shown in Gasland and Gasland Part II could be anyone’s stories. Imagine your life without safe water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, doing laundry, or filling your pet’s water bowl. How would you feel if you were powerless to stop a corporation from building a natural gas drilling rig next to your child’s school? What would you do if your home was now worthless and you could not afford to abandon it and move away?

I pose these questions not to dissuade potential viewers from watching the Gasland movies but to encourage you to learn about how natural gas production affects people and the environment. Ignorance is not bliss; awareness of a problem is the first step towards solving it.

Gasland and Gasland Part II should be required viewing for all corporate executives and government officials.

I think I will ask President Obama if he has seen the movies yet.

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