Oil train project suffers defeat in California

San Luis Obispo County rejected a proposal by Phillips 66 to ship crude oil through the community.

An oil train in California. CREDIT: iStock
An oil train in California. CREDIT: iStock

On Wednesday, a community in Southern California rejected an oil-by-rail proposal that would have sent three 80-car trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil through San Luis Obispo County each week.

By a 3–1 vote, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted to reject a proposal from Phillips 66 that would have created a 1.3-mile rail spur from one of its refineries to a larger rail line. That would have allowed the company to send crude oil shipments to the refinery by rail, rather than through a pipeline, as it currently does.

The proposal garnered intense criticism from community members and city officials, who feared that an increase in oil-by-rail shipments would place towns along the rail line at risk. A series of high-profile derailments and spills — from a derailment in Mosier, Oregon last summer that spilled some 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil to a high-speed derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people in 2013 — have raised questions about the safety of shipping oil by rail, especially for communities along proposed routes.

“How can you ignore the actual pleas of our neighboring representatives who represent more than 10 million citizens [in California],” Commissioner Eric Meyer said during the vote. “You are willing to accept the possibility of a death, or 20, or 100, yet every representative of the cities around you have said it’s not OK… so this oil company can achieve a higher margin.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, this is the second defeat for oil companies looking to construct new oil-by-rail projects in California. Last year, the city of Benicia also rejected a proposal by the Valero Refining Company to build a terminal that would have received two 50-car shipments of oil each day.

In 2014 and 2015, the United States broke records for both the amount of oil shipped by rail, and the cost of associated oil train explosions. Over the course of a few months in 2015, an oil train derailment and spill caused the evacuation of a North Dakota town, a derailment and explosion in Illinois, and a derailment and explosion in West Virginia that forced 1,000 people to evacuate.

Since then, the amount of oil being shipped by rail has declined significantly, due in large part to an increase in pipelines in North Dakota as well as a small drop in U.S. oil production.

But even as shipment of oil by rail has dropped, community opposition to new projects has remained steady. In the Pacific Northwest — where officials in Washington state are currently mulling a proposal for the largest oil-by-rail facility in the country—opponents of oil-by-rail projects have staged protests aimed at shutting down entire rail lines. In the wake of the Mosier derailment, Oregon and Washington officials also called for a permanent moratorium on oil-by-rail shipments throughout the region. State legislatures in Oregon and Washington are also currently considering bills that would increase regulatory oversight for oil-by-rail traffic throughout the region.

A decision on the Washington oil-by-rail terminal — which could increase the amount of oil-by-rail traffic in the region by 155 trains per week — is expected sometime in the coming months.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the project was rejected by a 3–2 vote. In fact, one commissioner was forced to recuse himself from the vote after it was reported that he had received over $260,000 from Phillips 66. ThinkProgress regrets the error.