Derailing Big Oil’s Plans for San Luis Obispo and Benicia

February 18, 2016
Andrés Soto of Benicians for a Safe & Healthy Community

In early February, two California planning commissions held hearings and faced decisions on permitting dangerous new oil train projects. In both cases local grassroots groups, supported by people and organizations across the state, spoke loudly and clearly against the projects. The question then became, would commissions listen?

San Luis Obispo is a town of 46,000 on the Central Coast between LA and San Francisco. Three years ago the Phillips 66 refinery, just south of town, proposed a new train terminal to bring in five oil trains a week, about 10 million gallons of crude. Around the same time in Benicia, a town of 27,000 in the Northernmost reaches of San Francisco Bay, Valero proposed an almost identical oil train terminal. Trains traveling to either refinery would travel right through downtown SLO or Benicia, and through the downtowns of cities and towns across California.

So for three years grassroots activists in both cities — as well as in cities all along the rail lines – have built campaigns to stop these dangerous proposals. And in early February the Planning Commissions for Benicia and San Luis Obispo held hearings to allow citizens, industry and others to comment before commissioners made decisions on the permits that would allow or deny the projects.

Staff reviewed roughly similar data in both cases, but came to starkly different conclusions. In Benicia, staff recommended that commissioners approve the Valero oil train plan. In San Luis Obispo, county staff recommended that commissioners deny the Phillips 66 proposal. But the decision, of course, lies with the commissioners.

On February 4 and 5, hundreds of Californians descended from all corners of the state to San Luis Obispo to speak at SLO Planning Commission hearings on the proposed project. During two impassioned days of public testimony, commissioners heard from dozens upon dozens of teachers, nurses, students, firefighters, elected officials, and neighbors. A highlight of the day was testimony from Gabby Davis, a high school student from Paso Robles, who told commissioners, “oil trains are dinosaurs, and dinosaurs belong in museums.”

At noon on Thursday, February 4, 600 rallied behind signs and a 90-foot-long inflatable oil train, making front page news. The rally highlighted the breadth of opposition to oil trains and reflected how communities across the state and the nation are tied together by the rail lines. By the end of February 5, only a fraction of those signed up to speak had delivered public comments. The decision remains pending and hearings will continue February 25.

In Benicia, Planning Commission hearings kicked off on Monday, February 8. For four consecutive nights hundreds of Benicia residents and allies flooded the hearing chambers to urge commissioners to deny Valero’s proposal. After a dramatic final night of hearings on Thursday, February 11, the Benicia Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the project’s land use permit.

The decision by the Benicia Planning Commission came despite unrelenting pressure from big oil and railroad lobbyists, even city staff. The city attorney reminding the commission over and over again that Valero’s tax contributions constitute a quarter of the city general fund. But late into the night, when the commissions finally got their chance to speak, they spoke with one powerful voice. They tore apart the project’s faulty environmental review and questioned the motives of city staff and their attorney. They expressed gratitude for the tremendous display of public opposition and affirmed the actual charge of their commission: to protect the health and welfare of the community.

In a dramatic moment, Commissioner George Oakes, who had listened intently during the four days of the hearings, said “I don’t want to be complicit with what has become a social nightmare across the country. What we are talking about here is some additional profit for a couple of companies.” Commissioner Susan Cohen Grossman followed up on Oakes’ comment by saying, “I don’t want to be the planning commissioner in the one city that said screw you to up-rail cities.”

The hearing was a beautiful display of democratic and thoughtful local governance. Today, the Benicia Planning Commission released this extraordinary resolution affirming the project’s denial. The denial will most certainly be appealed to the Benicia City Council, so it’s not over yet — but this is a victory worth celebrating.

The heroes here are the tireless and passionate leaders of Benicians for a Safe & Healthy Community, Mesa Refinery Watch Group, the ProtectSLO Coalition, and many, many others. These folks built community power that proves that no matter where big oil tries to go next with their dangerous oil train plans, there will be people power there to stop them.