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Good fences 

I’ve never really been what people tend to call “a good neighbor.” Sure, I’ll loan you a cup of sugar. And while my personal fragrance might be called Eau de Forgot to Wear Deodorant, I’ve never been accused of befouling the air on a massive scale. I might occasionally give a dollar or some spare change to a homeless guy I see on the street, but I don’t subsequently spend twice as much money telling everyone what a great person and neighbor I am.

That’s the difference between me and Phillips 66. There’s a plethora of people eager to tell you all about how Phillips 66 has done so much for the community, how much Phillips 66 cares about us all, and how very much it would hurt Phillips 66’s feelings if we denied the company its rail spur project. The problem is, Phillips 66 has greased the verbal wheels by giving these people a lot of money, and then turned around and given even more money to a local PR firm to tell the rest of the community just how great Phillips 66 really is. Call me a cynic, but as soon as I know someone’s been paid to say something, they lose credibility in my eyes, and I’m speaking as someone who has never been paid. Maybe they really mean it. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t they say it without being paid?

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Take Gil Stork, who tried to leverage his position as president of Cuesta College to push for a yes vote for the company’s rail spur extension project. His reasoning?

“At Cuesta College, Phillips 66 has financially supported our Women’s basketball program for nearly two decades as well as a [sic] allowing a plant manager to serve on the college’s Foundation board.”

Is it genuinely heart-warming to hear that Phillips 66 has been financially assisting the women’s basketball program? Absolutely. Would I find the gesture more genuine if the company didn’t then trot out the college’s president to support a project that has nothing to do with the college and nothing to do with women’s basketball? Absolutely. But why would a for-profit company make a charitable donation without capitalizing on the subsequent goodwill?

The reality is that Phillips 66’s “good neighbor” moments tend to be choreographed, right down to photographs of a smiling spokesperson handing over an enormous check. And that’s OK. That’s what for-profit corporations do. It is not, however, what good neighbors do. I know, because my neighbor is still miffed about the time I offered to pay up front so my dog can freely pop squats in his yard. In fact, a company is not a neighbor at all, regardless of how many times a PR company repeats the term. A corporation is not a human being with human concerns; corporations are motivated by one thing: profit.

The latest donation—$30,000 to the SLO Railroad Museum—was so blatantly tied to the company’s efforts to promote the rail spur project that the subject line on the check may as well have read, “See? Aren’t we good neighbors?”

Santa Maria Refinery Manager Bill Schroll gave the Paso Robles Daily News a lengthy, glowing spiel about the beautiful relationship between the refinery and the local railroad—a nonexistent relationship, but, hey, what’s a little prevarication between good neighbors? The point is, Phillips 66 wants there to be a relationship, and if that requires handing out gobs of money and talking about the railroad in a way that implies a history that doesn’t really exist, Phillips 66 is clearly more than willing to go there.

And I’m sure that as a result of my saying so, PR firm Barnett Cox & Associates is going to further limit New Times’ access to resources at the refinery. But seeing as how they already seemed to have lost New Times’ invitation to a media tour of a crude oil car, and also rejected a request to tour the plant based on the fact that project opponents have been given a voice in our reporting about the rail spur project, I think it’s fair to say that we were never going to see eye to eye. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received one of those giant checks from Phillips 66, rendering me incapable of voicing my honest opinion. But they’ve got a job to do, and while I might not like it—especially when it interferes with the media’s ability to disseminate accurate, uncurated information—I do understand it.

Speaking of jobs, Phillips 66’s primary argument for the rail spur extension has consisted of pointing out that the plant provides roughly 135 jobs locally, which is really great and all, but the subtext of these arguments is a vague threat that if Phillips 66 doesn’t get what it wants, it might have to take away some of those jobs. Which is not very neighborly, and, quite possibly, not very accurate. Phillips 66 doesn’t provide local jobs as an act of charity; those jobs exist because those employees perform a function that makes money for shareholders. And if they didn’t, the jobs would cease to exist. Again, that’s how corporations work.

While I don’t fault Phillips 66 for behaving like a corporation any more than I fault a wild animal for behaving like a wild animal, I don’t much appreciate the fact that they’re trotting out platitudes about being there for the community in lieu of substantive discussion about the impacts of what they’re proposing. Hiring a company to attempt to wrangle and limit the media while feeding the public a heavily manipulated image of an oil company as Mr. Rogers—if Mr. Rogers was in the habit of doling out enormous checks—is a fairly oily thing to do.


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