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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 350.org – a Global Grassroots Movement to Solve the Climate Crisis
- 4th of July – Be a Green Citizen
- Hands Across The Sand for a Clean Energy Future
- Life after Cancer – Volunteering
- March For Real Climate Leadership – Don’t Frack California
- People’s Climate March – September 21, 2014, in New York City
- Crude-by-Rail Across America Map, Earthjustice
- Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Proposed Rail Spur Extension Project Coastal Appealable Form, October 10, 2016
- Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Proposed Rail Spur Extension Project Final Environmental Impact Report, December 2015
- ProtectSLO.org (link inactive as of July 2019)
- SLO County Supervisors deny Phillips 66 oil-by-rail appeal, by Monica Vaughan, March 14, 2017, The Tribune
- SLO Planning Commission rejects Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal, by Cynthia Lambert, October 5, 2016, The Tribune