Senate Votes to Open Arctic Wilderness to Oil Drilling: Sierra Club Halts Oil Trains in California
October 23, 2017
Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post & Monica Vaughan / The Tribune-News
The Senate rejected an amendment Thursday that sought to block a key panel from raising revenue through drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that could make it easier for future oil and gas drilling to take place there. In other news, the plan by Phillips 66 to transport crude oil by rail to its Nipomo Mesa refinery is dead, environmental groups say, after the company agreed to drop its lawsuit against San Luis Obispo County.
Senate Votes to Raise Revenue by
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Juliet Eilperin / The Washington Post
(October 20, 2017) -- The Senate rejected an amendment Thursday that sought to block a key panel from raising revenue through drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that could make it easier for future oil and gas drilling to take place there.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, offered a budget amendment that would have removed instructions to the panel to raise an additional $1 billion through federal leasing.
It failed 48 to 52 on a largely party-line vote, with only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) breaking ranks. Collins voted in favor of Cantwell's amendment, while Manchin opposed it.
The vote, which came before the Senate approved Republicans' proposed budget, represented a victory for the GOP and a defeat for environmentalists. The Trump administration is quietly moving to spur energy exploration in the refuge for the first time in more than 30 years by considering whether to allow seismic testing there, but only Congress can determine whether oil and gas drilling can take place within its 19.6 million acres.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told her colleagues that they should view the budget instructions "as an opportunity to do something constructive for the country."
"It's about jobs, and job creation. It's about wealth and wealth creation," she said, adding that drilling in the refuge is "not the only option" for how her panel could find $1 billion in new revenue. "But I will tell you it is the best option, and it's on the table."
Opponents of the plan say that such operations could imperil the refuge's wildlife, which include polar bears as well as caribou and migrating waterfowl. David Yarnold, CEO of the National Audubon Society, said in a recent interview that based on recent lease sales, the federal government would likely get only $9 million in revenue if it auctioned off the right to drill on the refuge's coastal plain.
"It's just bad math," Yarnold said, adding that when lawmakers predict this activity could raise $1 billion, "there's no reason to believe that that's going to happen."
But Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) hailed the move as a sign that his state was inching closer to developing an area that's been shut off from development for years.
"This resolution is another key step that we've recently accomplished in a decades-long fight to allow Alaskans to produce energy in our state – something that Alaskans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, overwhelmingly support," Sullivan said in a statement. "More American energy production means more good-paying jobs, increased economic growth, and a stronger national security."
Environmentalists said they would continue to fight any move to drill in the refuge, which has been subject to fights in Congress for years.
"Today's vote is a wakeup call for all Americans. Americans have fought for decades to protect this last remaining truly wild landscape, and are rallying today because they believe in taking action on climate change and want to defend the rights of the Native Gwich'in people," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement.
"Every member of Congress who supported this scheme, to hijack the budget process to do the bidding of oil companies, needs to hear loud and clear that we are determined to defend 'America's Serengeti.'"
Phillips 66 Oil-by-rail Plan Is
Dead, Environmental Groups Say
Monica Vaughan / The Tribune-News
(October 2, 2017) -- The Phillips 66 plan to transport crude oil by rail to its Nipomo Mesa refinery is dead, environmental groups say, after the company agreed to drop its lawsuit against San Luis Obispo County.
Phillips 66 officials declined to comment Monday on what county attorney Tim McNulty called a settlement. If the settlement is approved by the court, the county's denial of the project will stand, McNulty said. The settlement was filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on Monday.
The settlement does not admit the area near the proposed spur contains an environmentally sensitive habitat, although the county's decision -- which used the presence of that habitat as grounds to deny the project -- still stands.
The agreement also does not prevent Phillips 66 from filing a new land-use permit application, and it makes clear county officials must make any future decisions independent of their initial determination.
Celebrating the news were opponents from around the state who had pleaded with officials to prevent an increase of oil-filled trains that could potentially derail from rolling by their homes, schools and businesses.
"I can say with 99.9 percent certainty this is the end of the track for more oil trains in San Luis Obispo County," said Andrew Christie with the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
"It's definitely a victory," added Alicia Roessler, one of the lead attorneys on the litigation for the Environmental Defense Center.
"The dismissal means the county's denial of the project stands. There are no appeals left. It just solidified our efforts and the communities' efforts to get rid of this project
"Hopefully that's the final nail in the coffin of this three-and-a-half-year odyssey," said Laurance Shinderman, a spokesman for the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, a grassroots group of residents who live near the Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
Phillips 66 sued the county after the Board of Supervisors in March upheld a Planning Commission decision to deny a permit to build a 1.3-mile rail spur that would allow the company to import 6.6 million gallons of crude oil a week by rail to its Santa Maria Refinery.
The company argued that county staff wrongly interpreted a Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance regarding environmentally sensitive habitat area.
The announcement that Phillips 66 has agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against the county came Monday morning from a group of environmental organizations.
The company has said the project would diversify oil supply, an argument it said was strengthened by the failure of the All American Pipeline in Santa Barbara County, which led to an ongoing supply gap for the local refinery.
Jim Anderson, the maintenance superintendent for Phillips 66, said last year that the drop in local production has resulted in fewer contractors and fewer employees.
Phillips 66 does import oil by truck, but the company has not proposed any large-scale increase to its trucking plan. The company would have to apply for new permits from the county to increase truck traffic to meet the supply that would have been brought by the rail project.
Phillips 66 agrees to drop lawsuit over oil trains to Nipomo refinery
Opposition to the plan to import oil from across North America by trains through California included environmental organizations, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, and communities across the proposed train route, including cities, counties and school districts.
Those efforts led to the demise of the project, Christie said.
"Projects never fail just because they're ill-conceived, especially when they're proposed by large, well-funded entities," Christie said. "The only way those projects fail is thanks to grassroots organizing and local people saying loud and clear, 'We don't want this project.' And that happened on a scale I've never seen before."
They voiced their opposition to the so-called "bomb trains," including at a two-day March 2017 Board of Supervisors meeting, where supervisors voted to uphold an earlier decision by the Planning Commission to reject the project.
Phillips 66 did not appeal the decision to the Coastal Commission. But it did file the lawsuit.
On Monday, Supervisor Debbie Arnold worried that the failure of the oil-by-rail proposal could doom the refinery.
"I am concerned about the loss of employment, and on a bigger scale, I would be concerned about the loss of the facility," she said. "It's important to keep our fuel prices down for our working people. It's one more thing that could create higher prices, if we lost that refinery or the use of it went down."
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