On February 4 and 5, a wide-ranging, dynamic coalition made a most impressive showing in San Luis Obispo (SLO). Over two days of hearings, speaker after speaker critiqued Phillip 66’s plan to have “bomb” trains bring in highly flammable and toxic tar sands crude oil. If approved, these trains would haul gunky but deadly bitumen from Alberta, Canada to the Central Coast—a very long haul.
In fact, the hearings soon became a rhetorical and informational rout. Addressing the SLO County Planning Commission, speakers from up and down the coast debunked plans to expand the refinery in Santa Maria. By the end of the second day, only a half dozen speakers had spoken in favor while many dozens had spoken against the project.
Informed Legal Challenges to the Phillips 66 Proposal
Not only was the quantity overwhelming, but the quality of the three-minute statements was the highly impressive. Public officials, professionals with special expertise, and citizens from far and wide drew on their personal experience and professional expertise, providing critique that was highly informed and consistently on point.
Activists cited the crumbling infrastructure of American railroads plus the fact that empty tank cars can be more explosive than full ones. Empty or full, outmoded tankers release noxious gasses long 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 the human lungs. A chemistry professor debunked the company’s junk science. Lawyers and law students challenged the absolutism of the “federal preemption” as invoked by Phillips 66.
The company’s lawyer reiterated the common claim that because the oil would travel by rail, 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 up and down the coast exposed the company’s false claims and invoked threats to local environments and quality of life. A high school student pointed out how “oil trains are dinosaurs—and dinosaurs belong in museums.”
Educated, Articulate Speakers from Nipono
Many of the most impressive speakers came from Mesa Refinery Watch Group, most of them retired or semi-retired professionals from Nipono, just a few miles from the refinery. Members’ stellar presentations came as no surprise, since this volunteer group, led by Larry Shinderman and Gary McKible, has long produced highly expert research, posted it on a visitor-friendly website, and published in a very professional electronic newsletter (http://www.mesarefinerywatch.com).
To popularize their cause, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group had sponsored “the Larry and Gary Show,” with its lively, irreverent commentary beamed throughout the state. 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 Nipono 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 country planners.
One of the most informative speakers was Richard Kuprewicz, president of an engineering consulting firm and adviser to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration. Kuprewicz pointed to the dangers of “the illusion of safety,” asking whether the safety improvements touted by railroads actually work. By showing genuine concern, he and others helped dispel the common suspicion that industry people don’t care about public safety.
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 contains a toxic stew of petrochemicals added so the “tar” can be made liquid, they poison 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
Activist groups from East and South Bay also had a huge presence at the hearings. They were essential to let the 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. The lives, health, and property of over a million Californians would suddenly be put at risk.
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. Later national groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council and local groups such as the Committee for a Better Environment and the Sunflower Alliance began to become involved. Together these groups 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 organizing in the county, 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 the SLO county planners. The biggest coup was 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. When pipelines fail to deliver their product, Big Oil has turned to oil trains for hauling dangerous crude oil in tank cars designed for benign corn oil.
But these oil trains over a mile long have not gone down well. Given the opposition—often led by “first nation” native peoples—to pipelines in Canada, Big Oil unveiled vast and varied plans to get ta-sands crude 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 to Portland to Benicia, Richmond, and Oakland. Now San Luis Obispo country 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 (http://beniciaindependent.com).
While it looks like sanity will prevail on the southern front, tough battles remain, first against Tesoro 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. ]