Broad Coalition in San Luis Obispo Blasts Tar Sands Invasion

Photos of SLO rally, Feb 4, 2016On February 4th & 5th, a wide-ranging, dynamic coalition made an impressive showing of people power in San Luis Obispo (SLO). Over two days of hearings, speaker after speaker critiqued Phillips 66’s plan to have trains bring in highly flammable and toxic tar sands oil to its Santa Maria refinery.

If approved, these “bomb” trains would transport gunky but deadly bitumen all the way from Alberta, Canada to California’s Central Coast—a very long haul. 

In fact, the SLO County Planning Commission hearings soon became a rhetorical and informational rout. Speakers from up and down the coast debunked plans to expand the Phillips 66 refinery with a rail terminal. By the end of the second day only a half dozen speakers out of 200 had spoken in favor.

Informed Legal Challenges to the Phillips 66 Proposal

Not only was the quantity of negative testimony overwhelming, but the quality was remarkable. Public officials, specialists with technical expertise, and concerned citizens from Santa Barbara to Crockett drew on their personal experience and professional training, providing critique that was highly informed and consistently on point.

Activists cited the crumbling infrastructure of American railroads, and the fact that empty tank cars can be more explosive than full ones. Empty or full, outmoded tankers release noxious gases along the route over many hundreds of miles.

Teachers cited tracks closer than the toss of a ball from school playgrounds. Doctors and nurses explained what the particulates in diesel exhaust do to human lungs. A chemistry professor debunked the company’s junk science. Lawyers and law students challenged the absolutism of “federal preemption” as invoked by Phillips 66.

The oil company’s lawyer reiterated the common claim that because the oil would travel by rail, and the federal government has jurisdiction over train traffic, then no legal basis existed for challenging its interstate commerce. But Linda Cobb, an attorney for the Sierra Club, retorted that in fact “there is no [federal] preemption of land use decisions,” which is the real issue before the Planning Commission. Having recently researched this preemption issue, law students from the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford added that the intent of a law prevails—and that Congress did not intend to erode state and local responsibility for land use.

Regular folks from both up- and downrail exposed the company’s false claims and invoked threats to local environments and quality of life. A high school student pointed out that “oil trains are dinosaurs—and dinosaurs belong in museums.”

Educated, Articulate Speakers from Nipomo

SLO-hearing-interior3.jpgMany of the most impressive speakers came from the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, most of them retired or semi-retired professionals from Nipomo, just a few miles from the refinery. This volunteer group, led by Larry Shinderman and Gary Kibble, has long produced highly expert research, posted it on a visitor-friendly website, and published a very professional electronic newsletter to alert their community to the many dangers posed by the Phillips 66 project.  As they declared in their mission statement, “If the rail terminal is not built, the oil trains will not come.”

To popularize their cause, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group sponsored “the Larry and Gary Show,” its lively, irreverent commentary beamed throughout the state.  And the day before the hearings, Larry made three radio interviews (one on KPFA) urging people far and wide to attend.  

While several of the most impressive speakers from Nipomo were seemingly neither environmentalists nor progressives, their contributions were highly cogent, often focusing on the voodoo economics of the company’s proposal. Jack Moyer rebutted its claims that the refinery was not receiving enough crude oil to refine—and, if it didn’t receive the Canadian crude, might well go out of business. He and others also pointed out how the railroads continue to stall on various safety improvements, including electronic brakes and better tank cars.

Roger Hensler, a former VP of Wells Fargo with a long interest in water quality, was among several speakers who indicated that as executives and members of corporate boards, they were not against profits—just excessive profits at public expense. While one might argue that all profits come at public expense, this perspective seemed to play well with the county planners.   

One of the most informative speakers was Richard Kuprewicz, president of an energy engineering consulting firm and adviser to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration. Kuprewicz pointed to the dangers of “the illusion of safety,” asking whether safety improvements touted by railroads actually work.   

Speaking after his presentation, Kuprewicz cited the 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River to illustrate the unique threats posed by tar sands oil. Because this heavy crude has a toxic stew of petrochemicals added to it so the “tar” can be made liquid, it equally poisons air, land and water.  If this crude goes into water, the heavy, toxic sludge remains on the bottom for decades. Because heavy oil sinks so quickly, none of the usual interventions are effective: there’s little opportunity to “clean up” a tar sands oil spill.

Phillips 66 Refinery Expansion Also Threatens East Bay

Map of rail lines in northern CaliforniaActivist groups from the East and South Bay also had a huge presence at the hearings. They made the Central Coast public understand that the route of the tar sands oil trains runs the full length of the East Bay urban corridor, from Richmond through Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and on to San Jose. (See an interactive map of these rail lines at the Forest Ethics website, Oil Trains Blast Zone.) The lives, health, and property of over a million Californians would suddenly be put at risk if “bomb” trains were given a green light. 

Working in tandem with the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Forest Ethics provided consistently dynamic, creative and tireless leadership. National groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council and local groups like Communities for a Better Environment and the Sunflower Alliance also joined the fight. Together they helped generate 25,000 letters to the SLO County Planning Commission.

Led by Val Love and Ethan Buckner, respectively, CBD and Forest Ethics co-organized a door-to-door canvassing campaign in SLO County; especially in North County communities, it extended awareness of the refinery expansion. When canvassers met in city parks to avoid renting a hall, these efforts became literally grassroots. To continue the county-wide organizing, the California Nurses Association contributed an organizer for several weeks.

Every City Along the East Bay Rail Route Signs On

Along with local community organizers, Love and Buckner led a campaign to get both city councils and school boards along the rail route to send letters to SLO county planners. The biggest coup was in San Jose, where City Council member Ash Kaira made the oil-trains issue his own. Meetings in San Jose informed residents with little previous awareness of the dangers. The eventual result was that San Jose, the largest city to the immediate north of SLO County, also sent letters of opposition. 

Exposing the Strategies Adopted by Big Oil

The much-reviled Keystone XL pipeline is dead, but it was only a part of the oil industry’s much bigger plans. Where inadequate pipeline infrastructure has prevented the delivery of their product, Big Oil has turned to oil trains for hauling dangerous crude oil in tank cars originally designed for hauling far more benign corn oil.

But the prospect and reality of mile-long oil trains have not been well received. Given the opposition—often led by First Nation peoples—to pipelines in Canada, Big Oil unveiled vast and varied plans to get tar sands oil to market. This push to move and refine a low-grade crude has sparked opposition up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver to Seattle and Portland, to Benicia, Richmond and Oakland. Now San Luis Obispo County has also become a battleground; it now looks like the good guys are going to win.

A Growing Movement Against Rail Transport of Crude Oil

Up and down the coast, citizens are pushing back. Huge protests have also erupted against oil trains in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon. Several Bay Area communities—notably Benicia and Richmond—have opposed Big Oil’s expansions to refineries for many years. Recently Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau banned tankers from some Pacific ports, but these struggles will be both long and ongoing.

While it looks like sanity will prevail on the southern front, tough battles remain, first against Valero in Benicia and then against the coal trains proposed for the Port of Oakland.

La lutta continua.  

Paul W. Rea, PhD, is a writer and activist in the East Bay.


Nancy Rieser of Crockett, California, testifies before the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission, February 5, 2016.