ELC Students Defend Local Control Over Oil Rail Projects

We’ve heard the stories since our childhood and seen them reproduced in books, television, and movies—David versus Goliath, famous face versus unknown underdog, giant corporation versus small local community. And over the last two weeks, my teammate Rylee Kercher and I stepped into a real life version of the time-honored tale.

The story begins in San Luis Obispo, CA, where Phillips 66 seeks to outfit its longstanding oil refinery with a new rail spur to bring in heavy crude oil from Canada. Currently, the facility only receives oil through pipeline, and the introduction of oil trains would be a major change for the company and surrounding community. When it first proposed this project, Phillips likely thought it would be Goliath facing David in the form of a small, rural community populated primarily by distracted college students and relaxing retirees. But, Phillips underestimated the retirees. Over the last few years, those retirees (with some help from the college students) have organized a sophisticated and wildly popular grassroots campaign to oppose the rail spur. The retirees termed themselves the Mesa Refinery Watch Group; armed with free time and a love of their beautiful community, they prepared to attack Phillips from every angle.

In response to this organized opposition, Phillips’ well-funded legal team began arguing that San Luis Obispo County has little authority to control—or perhaps even deny—the proposed project. Phillips argued that a federal commerce law (the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995) preempted much of the County’s control of the proposed rail spur. According to Phillips, that spur was related to the interstate rail system, a system completely controlled by the federal government. And despite their extensive preparation and organization, this complex legal issue worried the Mesa Refinery Watch Group.

So the Mesa Refinery Watch Group enlisted the Environmental Law Clinic to help break down Phillips’ preemption argument, an argument we believe is overreaching at best and plainly inaccurate at worst. With extensive help and guidance from our lead attorneys, we crafted a letter tearing holes in Phillips’ seemingly sound analysis. But knowing that the County officials might not give our letter the full attention it deserved, we travelled from Stanford to the community of San Luis Obispo to make our voice heard in the public hearings.

The hearings started with a presentation from staff, then quickly moved on to a presentation by the project proponent—Phillips 66—and their legal team. Their lawyer spent nearly an hour describing the project and questioning the County’s ability to exercise any meaningful control. Goliath was here with his towering federal partner—the County had no authority and needed to stand aside. The County took a break after Phillips’ long presentation. While the Mesa Refinery Watch Group had expected Phillips’ preemption argument, hearing it out loud left many feeling nervous and powerless. I know this because of one tenacious, white-haired woman who cornered me in the women’s bathroom. “What can we do?” she said, concern in her eyes. “Did you hear what their lawyer said? She’s telling us we can’t stop the trains.” I told her not to worry; we were prepared to respond.

ELC Students Speak Out For Local Control Over Big Oil Rail Projects
Claudia Antonacci, JD ’17, speaking to County officials at a public meeting in San Luis Obispo

Shortly thereafter, Rylee and I waited our turn in line for public comment. We spoke collectively for six minutes, attempting to convey as much of our complicated refutation of Phillips’ preemption position as we could. Then we took our seats. During our next break, the same woman who had previously spoken to me found me, somehow once again in the women’s bathroom. “You don’t know how much better it made me feel when you told me you were prepared, to know we had you on our side. You sure told them! Their lawyer was so condescending and you both were so respectful. Now they know they can’t just run us over!” And I could see in her eyes, she was sincere.

The excitement of that moment grew larger this week, when we had the chance to participate in an almost identical case. In Benicia, CA, a few hundred miles north of San Luis Obispo, a Valero refinery is proposing to replace oil that currently comes to the site via marine shipments with crude by rail. Here again, the oil company and its lawyers paraded federal preemption as their incontrovertible, unbending shield against local control. And to make matters worse than the situation in San Luis Obispo, in Benicia the City attorney bought into most of Valero’s preemption arguments, and parroted them back to the local decision makers.

But members of the Benicia community, like the watchdog group in San Luis Obispo, weren’t going to take those arguments lying down. Community members showed up in droves for four nights of marathon hearings—each stretching past 11:00 p.m.—to express their opposition to the far ranging health, safety, and environmental impacts of project. And because the preemption issue facing Benicia is so similar to that facing San Luis Obispo, we showed up as well to make our preemption argument heard. At 11:40 p.m., we stood up one after another, reciting our remarks, and filling two of the last three slots for public comment.

Despite the lateness of the hour, when the meeting adjourned a few minutes later, we were mobbed. A City Council member asked for written copies of our remarks with legal citations (which we thankfully had on hand); a reporter asked for a copy as well to include in his publication. As we tried to make our way out the door—to make the hour plus trek back to Stanford—we ran into a group of women in the hall. “I saw you in San Luis Obispo!” one woman said, “I’m so glad you were here tonight to make the case.” We laughed and joked that we’d found ourselves on the preemption circuit, thanked them for their kind words, and wished them luck in the case.

Then the next morning we got the news: the Benicia Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny Valero’s proposal. And though it’s only the first phase in the process, as Valero will almost certainly appeal to the City Council, it’s a big win nonetheless.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how much of a difference our short testimonies among hundreds of others made in Benicia or will make in San Luis Obispo. But walking out of that women’s bathroom in San Luis Obispo and standing in that hallway in Benicia, for a minute, we got to feel like Erin Brockovich—fighting Goliath, fighting that giant corporation, fighting for what’s right. And in that moment, it felt good.

2 Responses to ELC Students Defend Local Control Over Oil Rail Projects
  1. So proud of these Stanford students to take the time at attend and express their opinions to fight against this Oil companies

  2. I like the tactic of using the David vs Goliath analogy. In the first Star Wars movie, they borrowed a line from that same Bible story, where King Saul said to David (as David was leaving to confront Goliath), “Go, and may the Lord be with you.” I Samuel 17: 37. In the first Star Wars movie, Obie Wan Knobie says to Luke Skywalker (who is about to go off to confront Darth Vadar), “Go, and may the Force be with you.” And again, in the most recent Star Wars movie, we hear Queen Leah say to the young woman (who is about to depart on a dangerous mission), “Go, and may the Force be with you.” Apparently, this ancient Bible story has some durable material for use in our time.

    You are doing a great job. We are proud if you. We look forward to hearing the result in these cases.

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