Opinion » Commentaries

Seeking middle ground

Would a compromise on the Phillips 66 rail spur project satisfy both sides?



Recent letters to the editor by Martin Akel (“Quit personal attacks on those who don’t agree about oil trains,” Oct. 1) and Laurance Shinderman (“It’s about more than oil,” Oct. 22) got me to thinking: Who really knows facts about this project and who doesn’t? The recent article “Trouble on the Rails” published by the LA Times and picked up by The Tribune further clouds the issue, with the suggestion that oil “sloshing” in tank cars somehow contributes to derailments. That is highly speculative, bordering on reckless, to suggest. I highly doubt the “suggestion,” given the large number of dangerous and flammable liquids railroads move, in tank cars, on a daily basis. I’ve seen the hundreds upon hundreds of tank cars loaded with chemicals and flammables that move north daily toward the Midwest and East Coast, by rail, from the Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana. “Sloshing” causing derailments doesn’t seem to be an issue there, otherwise it would be all over the national news.

The current crude oil trains from Wunpost (near San Ardo) to the Wilmington/Carson area, just north of Long Beach, have been operating for more than 15 years, usually two to three trains per week. No derailments have occurred, so apparently either Union Pacific maintains its tracks very well or this idea of “sloshing” causing derailments is bogus, or (likely) both. Anybody who has ridden Amtrak over this route knows how many curves there are. If there was some kind of flaw, we would have found out by now. The oil is heavy sour crude (API gravity 10) so the chances of “sloshing” are low anyway.

The former Southern Pacific Railroad, now Union Pacific, operated a unit oil train for many years from near Bakersfield to Wilmington/Carson for Shell Oil Company. These trains ran over the twisting and steep grades of the Tehachapi Mountains daily without a single track-related derailment. A fully loaded train was usually 78 cars weighing in at about 10,800 tons.

I question why those against the project think all or even most the oil would be oil sands crude from Alberta. That is highly unlikely, long term, given the increasingly stringent refinery air emission rules proposed by the state of California. Refineries in this state are increasingly looking at blending different grades/types of crude oil to meet the various regulations. I have no doubt that is a major reason why Phillips 66 is pushing for this project. Additionally, since the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) covers the rail line east and south of the Nipomo refinery toward LA and Colton, and since oil sands crude would arrive from the north, the only explanation for the expanded EIR to the east is so P66 could possibly bring in a medium grade crude oil from Texas or New Mexico for blending purposes. Bringing in any medium grade crude oil, whether it’s from Texas, Colorado, or Wyoming, would likely cut down on the amount of petroleum coke the refinery produces. I would think the Nipomo Mesa residents would be thrilled at that possibility. The refinery’s pet coke and sulphur pile would go down, thus the chances of windblown particulates is reduced. We already know the area has a windblown sand problem.

I’m not going to get into a debate on why residents knowingly bought homes close to the refinery. To each their own. However, my understanding is several years ago the SLO County Planning Commission OK’d a plan allowing then refinery owner Conoco/Phillips to increase refinery “through-put,” which also included some visual modifications to the refinery. If true, was this information ever provided to potential new residents??

Finally, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the current plan won’t be approved by the Planning Commission simply because of the number of trains per week. However, I doubt Phillips 66 will give up, not with refining margins being unusually high, and with people purchasing new trucks and SUVs (studies show both women and men, increasingly, feel safer in larger vehicles). I have no problem with the crude oil unloading facility being built but with strong use restrictions and with proof, from both Phillips 66 and Union Pacific, that the entire operation, over time, is as safe as possible. 

Five trains a week is likely not too many, but there are those against the project who think that is an excessive number of crude oil trains per week. OK. Then start with two per week, prove to the skeptics that it’s safe, unload the trains only during daylight hours, and go from there. That is the only middle ground I can find here. Would it please Phillips 66? Maybe. Would it please the people against the project? Probably not. 


Allen Meyers is a resident of Santa Maria and has been a big fan of railroads since he was a kid. He follows trends in the petroleum industry closely. Part of his daily reading requirement is rbenergy.com. Send comments to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

-- Allen Meyers - Santa Maria

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