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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on September 22nd, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 16, Issue 29

Phillips 66 and the Pope

Use the Pope's comments on climate change to make good decisions for the Central Coast

By CAROLINE HALL

The Pope has come to the U.S., and (possibly) daily oil trains are coming to San Luis Obispo. This gives us an opportunity to test some of Pope Francis’ ideas in the local context. In the encyclical published in June, Laudato Si, the Pope calls for transparency in local planning and an approach that takes fully into account the environmental and social implications of any project. The thrust of his message is that we cannot continue to allow those who are rich and/or powerful to create projects that benefit them but not the rest of the planet. That’s why the encyclical’s subtitle is “On Care for our Common Home.”

Of course, our process of environmental impact reviews is meant to assess the probable impacts of a project, but there is no guarantee that project leaders will truly be able to do this accurately. 

Some of the possible impacts are impossible to assess. Take, for example, the possibility that an oil train will derail in San Luis Obispo County and blow up. We can all agree that this would not be a good thing. Our rail system runs very near residential areas and through pristine environments. An oil train disaster like the ones we have seen in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and in North Dakota could cause loss of life and incredible destruction of the local ecosystem.

There are arguments on both sides of the question. The 6,900 feet of new rail line proposed would allow the current refinery, which employs about 200 people, to continue to function at an economically profitable level, thus protecting those jobs. It would also add about 150 jobs during the construction phase. And goodness knows, we need jobs. The Pope agrees that “we were created with a vocation to work. … Work is a necessity.” Also, bringing in crude oil by train would be less of a burden on the environment than bringing it in (and out) by road with the concomitant pollution and the possibility of a road spill.

But this may be short sighted. After all, we know that the supply of oil is limited. We also know that burning oil is one of the main contributors to climate change; 99 percent of scientists now agree that global warming is, to a significant degree, the result of human activity, and we need to significantly change that human activity if the planet is to be inhabitable for our grandchildren and their children. We need oil for plastics, which we depend on in many spheres of life, not the least of which is medicine. So we need to stop burning oil very soon both in order to reduce the rate of climate change and to keep enough to make vital plastics until viable alternatives are developed.

Most oil trains reach their destinations safely without incident. But there is that small number that doesn’t. And this is where the Pope steps in, arguing that “if objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof.” Objective information in this situation suggests that the kind of oil that will be transported through San Luis Obispo County is highly flammable and that there is a possibility of an accident causing serious and irreversible damage. Objective information suggests that the very extraction of this oil is in itself damaging to the environment. Objective information also suggests that continuing to mine and burn fossil fuels is causing huge “serious and irreversible” changes to our climate. 

It seems that the short-term objective of bringing the Nipomo refinery up to full operating capacity is in the interests of its owners and employees but at the long-term expense of the wider community and of the planet we depend on. Would it not be prudent to find alternative industry that can provide livelihoods for the employees affected and allow the refinery to become a relic of the past addiction to oil?

The Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall is rector of St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Los Osos, and a member of People of Faith for Justice. She can be reached at caro@stbenslososos.org.








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