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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Green Travel – Aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

Besides being a green travel option, taking the train allows you to stretch out, relax, and switch into vacation mode as soon as you board the train.

In the first part of this 2-part post, Green Travel – Take the Train, we compared the carbon footprint, time, cost, and impact on one’s personal well-being of air travel versus train travel. This second part recounts our family’s recent experience riding the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Paso Robles, CA to Portland, OR and back. We booked two 2-person compartments for the overnight trip.

Our Trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train

Instead of getting up at 4:00 a.m., which is what we would have done had we been flying to Portland, we slept in, ate a leisurely brunch, and had enough time in the afternoon to finish packing.

Paso Robles, CA Amtrak Station - Photo: Loco SteveWe left our house about 3:30 p.m. to drive to Paso Robles in anticipation of boarding the Amtrak Coast Starlight train at 4:37 p.m. After easily finding a free parking spot, we toted our luggage about 200 feet to the station. By checking the train’s status on one of our phones, we learned it would be about an hour late. We passed the time playing cards.

When the train arrived, we walked to our assigned sleeping car, showed our ID’s and tickets to the car attendant, boarded, and stored most of our luggage in the downstairs luggage area and took a few small bags to our compartments.

We settled into our large comfortable seats thankful to have room to stretch out and relax. The car attendant came by to take our dinner reservation, explain the locations of the restrooms, shower room, and beverage area, and ask if we needed anything.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Dining Car Table with Dinner Selections - Photo: Carl MorrisonAt eight o’clock, as the train made its way to Oakland, we reported to the dining car for dinner. Several options were available for each meal and the food was good. Amtrak switched from china to recyclable plastic dishes, but they still use cloth napkins and stainless steel flatware. Recycling bins throughout the train encourage passengers to recycle.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Parlour Car Interior - Photo: Wikipedia

After dinner, we retired to the parlour car which provides drinks and snacks, meals, comfy lounge chairs, wine tasting, and movies for sleeping car passengers. We snagged a table and played board games we brought with us. This involved trash talk, some strategy, and a lot of fun.

Sometime after midnight, we returned to our compartments to sleep. The upper berth folds down and the bottom seats fold out to create two beds. Fortunately, my non-claustrophobic spouse allowed me to take the lower berth. I would not say the beds were comfortable but we did catch a few hours of sleep.

Amtrak Coast Starlight with Cascade Mountains, OR Scenery - Photo: Uncle BobBy 7:00 a.m., we were up and sipping our first cup of coffee from the sleeping car coffee urn. A couple hours later, we met our kids for breakfast in the dining car and enjoyed the scenery as we passed through the Klamath Falls area just over the Oregon border. We opted to skip lunch.

We dispersed to our respective compartments to play computer games, read, and watch the scenery, talk, and nap.

We arrived in Portland about 10 minutes ahead of our 3:32 p.m. scheduled arrival. We grabbed our luggage and headed to our hotel for the night.

Six days later, we made the return trip from Portland to Paso Robles. This time the train was delayed about two hours sometime during the night and never made the time up. We used the extra time to have lunch, kick back, and enjoy the afternoon.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Roomette - Photo: Jim LoomisOur train journeys took about 2 ½ times as long as flying would have taken but we were far more comfortable and relaxing, and completely hassle-free. The reduction in carbon footprint was significant, but the best part was having the time and space to relax, unwind, and take pleasure in spending time with each other.

The next time you are planning to fly somewhere consider taking the train. You may be pleasantly surprised to find the cost and sometimes the time comparable or even less than flying. Regardless, the planet and your personal well-being are worth it.

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