On March 15, residents of San Luis Obispo County and thousands of other California citizens hailed yet another victory against Big Oil when the County’s Board of Supervisors voted to deny an appeal of the County Planning Commission decision rejecting Phillips 66’s proposed crude rail terminal at its Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo, Calif. The proposed terminal would have brought up to five 80-tank-car trains each week, carrying 7 million gallons of toxic and volatile tar sands crude to the refinery. Trains serving the project would have traveled from the north and south, through the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Davis, Los Angeles, and along California’s treasured central coast line. These trains, comprised of old, deficient tank cars known to derail and puncture, were not designed to carry volatile crudes such as tar sands and fracked Bakken crude that explode and can burn uncontrolled for days. The project would have put millions of Californians and communities across the country at serious risk of a catastrophic accident.
The Sierra Club spent more than three years opposing the project, drafting legal and technical comments that forced the County to recirculate the environmental impact report for further review. The Planning Commission specifically cited the Sierra Club and its allies’ comments as bringing to light missing information, and subsequently required Phillips 66 to disclose critical information about the project and called for a significantly expanded environmental review.
The 3-to-1 vote of the County Board of Supervisors to deny the appeal was the result of the ongoing opposition efforts by the Sierra Club and its allies, including grassroots organizing and several rounds of comments. The Club educated the public and built a network of local elected officials from throughout the state who represented constituents along the rail route that would serve the project. These champions registered their formal opposition with the County. The Sierra Club engaged individuals and issued action alerts for numerous public hearings and town hall meetings, including the final appeal before the Board of Supervisors. These efforts drew hundreds of activists to testify at hearings and generated nearly 35,000 written comments in opposition to the project.
The Board of Supervisors victory comes on the heels of another win in which a judge threw out Phillips 66’s court appeal of the Planning Commission decision because the law requires that Phillip 66 first exhaust its appeal opportunities to the Board of Supervisors prior to challenging any decision in court. The Sierra Club and its allies intervened as a party in that lawsuit to defend the County and advocated dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that it was premature. The Club will continue to stay the course and engage its activist base, work closely with its allies, and leverage its legal and technical expertise in the event that Phillips decides to pursue a court appeal.
As part of its national Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, the Sierra Club has had other recent successes stopping crude-by-rail infrastructure projects. In September 2016, the City of Benicia, California, voted unanimously to reject Valero Energy’s proposed crude-by-rail project, which would have brought two 50-tank-car trains to the city each day, carrying 3 million gallons of volatile Bakken and tar sands crude oil. During the project’s environmental review process, the Sierra Club and its partners submitted legal and technical comments, organized individuals, and partnered closely with environmental justice community groups directly affected by the project. These efforts helped turn out hundreds of people to public hearings and generated over 1,000 written comments in opposition to the project.
The Benicia decision was preceded by the federal Surface Transportation Board’s ruling rejecting Valero’s claim that the City was preempted by federal law and therefore lacked the authority to deny the project. The Sierra Club intervened as a formal party in the federal proceeding, advocating for the authority of cities and local governments to make critical decisions about hazardous projects slated for their communities. The Board’s decision affirming the Club’s position empowers local governments in places like Benicia and San Luis Obispo County to reject dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure projects in order to protect the public health, welfare, and environment of citizens.
The Sierra Club is also engaged deeply in fighting crude-by-rail infrastructure projects throughout the Pacific Northwest. Last year, in partnership with other national and local groups, the Club responded to a major oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, and successfully stopped four new crude-by-rail projects in Anacortes and Gray’s Harbor, Washington, and Wasco County, Oregon. The Club is working to halt the proposed Tesoro Savage project—the largest proposed crude by rail facility in the nation—which is sited on the banks of the iconic Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, and cancel the Westway crude-by-rail facility in Gray’s Harbor.
Devorah Ancel is a staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program.