Why the Phillips 66 oil train terminal project is no more

By Andrew Christie, Santa Lucia Chapter Director, and Devorah Ancel, Attorney for Sierra Club


On October 24, the signature of a Superior Court judge formally brought to an end an epic three-year environmental struggle. Phillips 66, the County of San Luis Obispo, and environmental and community groups including the Sierra Club, settled the oil giant's lawsuit challenging the county's denial of a proposed crude-by-rail terminal that would have brought millions of barrels of explosive tar sands crude to our coastal community. The settlement, which affirms the County's denial of this dangerous project, is a complete win for our community and communities across California that would have been placed directly in the line of fire of this volatile moving pipeline. 

Contrary to a recent Cal Coast News blog that claimed "Phillips 66 can bring back oil-by-rail proposal," the settlement affirms the County's rejection of the project. Having chosen not to appeal the decision to the California Coastal Commission, Phillips 66 has no further avenues to pursue in its quest to undo the County's decision.

The Phillips 66 lawsuit attempted to negate the county's denial of the project by challenging a determination that "environmentally sensitive habitat area" (ESHA) existed on the project site. However, the county's denial of the project was only based in part on its determination that the project poses a threat to sensitive ecosystems supporting sensitive species. The County also found that the project poses a host of other serious unmitigable impacts including adverse air quality impacts and a serious risk of derailment, spill, and explosion to local communities and to communities throughout the state. Phillips 66 did not challenge the County's other justifications for denial in its lawsuit and, arguably, a court would have been hard-pressed to simply overturn the County's denial of the project based on the ESHA determination alone, given the serious unmitigable risks that the project posed to communities, public health, and the environment. 

And the settlement affirms the ESHA determination for the proposed project. It further clarifies, as the law prescribes, that the County may use and rely upon the same information that the County used in reaching the ESHA determination at issue in this case in the context of any future land use development permit application for the site. In other words, if Phillips or another future owner of the property returns with a new project proposal for that site, all the information that documented the presence of ESHA on the project site at issue in this case can be used again during that future environmental review process, in addition to any new studies the County chooses to undertake.

Sierra Club and its partners — Environmental Defense Center, Communities for a Better Environment, STAND.Earth, Center for Biological Diversity and Surfrider — were instrumental in the County's rejection of this dirty and hazardous fossil fuel project. We intervened in the Phillips 66 lawsuit and successfully defended the County's denial of the project and its ESHA determination. We spent three years opposing the project, drafting legal and technical comments that forced the County to recirculate the environmental impact report for further review and to obtain critical information from Phillips 66 about the project's impacts. We educated the public and built a network of local elected officials from throughout the state representing constituents along the project's rail route. These champions registered their formal opposition with the County. We engaged individuals for numerous public hearings and town hall meetings, which drew hundreds of activists to testify. The Club's efforts helped to generate nearly 35,000 written comments in opposition to the project. 

We are grateful to our County decision makers for placing the health and safety of our community and the environment ahead of big oil's short-term goals and profits. This is especially true in a time where California and the world are making strides in transitioning away from dirty and dangerous fossil fuels in favor of cleaner fuel alternatives. This victory continues to lay the groundwork for our transition to a clean and fossil fuel-free economy. 

A panel of representatives from several of the local groups involved in bringiing about that victory will discuss what went into that effort this Saturday on the 4 p.m. closing panel of the Central Coast Bioneers Conference at the SLO Grange Hall.