San Francisco Chronicle: Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

By Jaxon Van Derbeken, October 23, 2014
Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered.

Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

A plan to bring tank-car trains filled with crude oil from Canada and North Dakota to a Benicia refinery is pitting the Solano County town against Northern California neighbors who say they will be burdened with the risk of environmental catastrophe.

Benicia officials must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on a $70million terminal at Valero Corp.’s refinery near Interstate 680, where two 50-car oil trains a day would deliver crude.

Supporters and the company say California consumers stand to benefit: With no major oil pipelines running to the West Coast and marine transport both costly and potentially hazardous, they say, rail is the best way to keep local gasoline prices low.

“Right now, that refinery relies on more expensive crude from Alaska,” said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero. “Rail is the quickest, most efficient and safest way of delivery.”

Benicia’s environmental study weighing the risks of the project, however, has done nothing to assuage critics who say the city is downplaying the dangers of delivering oil by rail.

Crude from North Dakota shale is extra-volatile, they say, and the city’s environmental report assessed only the chances of a spill along the 69 miles of track from the Sacramento suburbs to Benicia — not the chance of a catastrophic explosion, or the possibility of an accident of any kind along the more than 1,000 additional miles the trains would have to travel to reach the shores of the Carquinez Strait.

“This project is not in our region — it is outside of our region — but the impacts on the 2.3million people who live here we view as very significant, very troublesome, very disturbing,” said Don Saylor, chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 22 cities and six counties through which the oil trains could travel.

‘A street fight’

Benicia itself is divided by the proposed project. Some locals worry about the environmental risks and traffic problems, while others tout the benefits of low-cost crude to Valero — a company that accounts for a quarter of the city’s tax revenue.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.” | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

“This is going to be a street fight,” said oil-train opponent Ed Ruszel, whose family woodworking business fronts the railroad tracks next to the refinery. “They have to come across my driveway every day — we’re at ground zero.”

The issue is so contentious that the city attorney recently told Mayor Elizabeth Patterson to stop sending out e-mail alerts about city meetings regarding the oil-train project. According to Patterson, the city attorney warned that her activism could open Benicia’s final decision to legal challenge.

Patterson said she has not taken a stand on the Valero terminal, but that “we need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”

She called City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin’s warning “a blatant effort to muzzle me.” Mc Laughlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Canadian disaster

For Ruszel and other critics of the project, the danger is real. They cite several recent oil-by-rail explosions, including the derailment of a 72-car train that killed 47 people and wiped out much of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec in July 2013.

The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains.

The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

The Valero-bound trains would pass through Sacramento, Davis and Fairfield, among other cities, en route to Benicia. Those cities have voiced concerns about the terminal, where trains would deliver a total of 2.9million gallons a day of shale oil and tar sands.

“We have lots of support here from our own local people,” said project critic Marilyn Bardet of Benicia, “but the real difference is that there are so many agencies and people from up rail looking at this problem. We feel exonerated — everybody has chimed in and agreed with us.”

Not everyone along the rail line is against the idea, however. State Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican who represents Rocklin (Placer County) and is running for state insurance commissioner, called the project “beneficial environmentally and economically.”

It “can be done safely given the prevention, preparedness and response measures in place by both Valero and Union Pacific Railroad,” Gaines said.

Setting precedents

The Benicia battle will probably be a preview of numerous local fights over oil trains in California. Oil-by-rail shipments jumped from 1million barrels in 2012 to 6.3million barrels in 2013, according to government estimates. By 2016, the state could be awash with 150million rail-shipped barrels of crude a year.

What Benicia does could influence how future oil-train plans play out. Several cities have called on Benicia to require that all train tanker cars have reinforced walls and be better controlled by new, electronically activated braking systems, and that officials restrict what kind of oil can be shipped to Valero.

Such efforts, however, could run afoul of federal law that preempts states and local governments from setting standards on rail lines. Valero has already warned city officials that it may “invoke the full scope of federal preemption,” a thinly veiled threat to sue if Benicia imposes too many restrictions.

Much of the crude that would arrive via train at Valero is expected to come from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Federal transportation officials recently deemed Bakken crude to be an “imminent hazard” because it is far more easily ignitable than more stable grades of crude previously shipped by rail.

In issuing an alert in May, federal transportation officials warned that oil trains with more than 20 cars are at the highest risk because they are heavier than typical cargo and thus more difficult to control. The federal government is considering requiring additional reinforcement of tanker cars and more robust braking systems.

The federal alert about the danger of crude by rail comes as accidents have skyrocketed, with nine major explosions nationwide since the start of 2013. Last year alone, trains spilled more than 1million gallons of crude in the United States — 72 percent more than the entire amount spilled in the previous four decades combined, California officials say.

The consultants who wrote Benicia’s draft environmental impact study concluded that because the type of crude that would be brought to Valero is a trade secret, they could not factor it into their risk assessment. They calculated that a major spill on the 69 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and Benicia could be expected roughly once every 111 years.

Among those who think Benicia needs to take a harder look is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office wrote a letter challenging the environmental impact report this month.

Harris’ office says the report’s authors assumed that the safest rail cars available would be used, disregarded spills of fewer than 100 gallons in determining the likelihood of accidents and, in looking only as far as Roseville, ignored 125 miles of routes north and east of the Sierra foothills town.

Some possible routes go through treacherous mountain passes that historically have seen more accidents, say oil-train skeptics. While not specifically mentioning a legal challenge, Harris’ office called Benicia’s study deficient and said it ignored the “serious, potentially catastrophic, impacts” of an accident.

Not her call

Valero says Harris can voice all the objections she wants, but that she doesn’t get a say on whether the terminal will be built.

“This is really the city of Benicia’s decision,” said Day, the company spokesman. The attorney general and others, he said, are “free to file comments” on the environmental report.

He added that “all the crude oil that Valero ships will be in the newest rail cars, which meet or exceed rail safety specifications.”

“Rail companies have products moving on the rails every day that are flammable,” Day said. “The overwhelming majority of everything transported gets there safely, on time, with no incidents.”

Benicia’s City Council now has to decide whether to order to certify the draft study, order it revised or reject it entirely. When that decision comes, Benicia will be getting a lot of out-of-town attention.

“We have near-unanimity in our region to address the safety issues of the crude-oil shipments by rail,” said Saylor, the Yolo County supervisor. “For us, it has been strictly about public safety. It’s a high-risk operation — we have no choice but to take on this issue.”

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Sacramento crude oil transfers halted; air quality official says permit was granted in error

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento crude oil transfers halted; air quality official says permit was granted in error

By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate, 10/22/2014
A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands in March.

A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands in March. Randall Benton

A Sacramento fuel distributor has agreed to stop unloading train shipments of crude oil at McClellan Business Park after the county’s top air quality official said his agency mistakenly skirted the state’s environmental rules by issuing a permit for the operation.

InterState Oil Co. said in a letter Wednesday to the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality District that as of Nov. 7 it will no longer use McClellan as a transfer station for crude oil shipments to the Bay Area.

The move settles a lawsuit filed in September by EarthJustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group, that contended the Sacramento air quality district should not have granted InterState Oil a permit to transfer crude oil from trains to tanker trucks bound for Bay Area oil refineries without a full environmental impact review.

Air district head Larry Greene now says a full review was, in fact, required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

“We made an error when the permit was developed, and it should have gone to full CEQA review,” Greene said Wednesday. “We have notified (InterState) and the environmental group to that effect. InterState is voluntarily giving that permit back.”

Greene said InterState will continue other transfer operations at its McClellan site, including transfers of ethanol.

It is unclear whether the company will apply for a new permit to load crude oil. Its representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

A lawyer for EarthJustice called this a major victory in the group’s fight against potentially unsafe oil shipments.

“It signals that industry and government may not benefit from a lack of transparency and play dice with lives of people who live along the paths of these dangerous oil trains,” attorney Suma Peesapati said. “This is the first crude transfer project that has been stopped dead in its tracks in California.”

The reversal by the Sacramento air quality district could bolster efforts by environmental groups to slow or stop crude oil projects on rail lines elsewhere, particularly in Washington state. A proposed terminal in Vancouver, Wash., would transfer oil from trains to tanker ships that could supply California refineries.

Patti Goldman, a managing attorney in the Seattle office of EarthJustice, said the decision sounded “a wake-up call” for permitting authorities to consider community input.

“We have been seeing local authorities blindly approve crude-by-rail projects without being open with the public and without considering the full effects,” she said.

The McClellan operation is relatively small compared with the kind of crude oil train terminals now proposed elsewhere in California. One, in southwestern Kern County in the southern Central Valley, will be able to receive one 100-car train full of of crude oil each day; the McClellan facility was permitted to unload a similar amount once every two weeks.

The Kern facility, which could begin operating this month, was already zoned for transfer operations, and required no new environmental reviews or public comments.

In September, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a separate facility at a Bakersfield refinery that could receive two trains a day. EarthJustice sued the board earlier this month, contending that Kern’s environmental review was inadequate.

Environmental groups lost a legal fight in the Bay Area city of Richmond, where a terminal operated by pipeline company Kinder Morgan unloads crude oil from trains to trucks that take it to local refineries. A judge rejected the lawsuit in September, ruling that the six-month statute of limitations had expired. That project involves 100-car oil trains that come through midtown Sacramento.

Another proposed oil-train terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria could mean even more of the cargo passing through Sacramento.

A Sacramento Bee story in March revealed the existence of the McClellan operation to a number of surprised local officials, including the head of the county Office of Emergency Management and the chiefs of the Sacramento city and Metropolitan fire departments. It noted that InterState began handling crude oil last year without obtaining a permit.

Some of the crude unloaded at McClellan may have originated in North Dakota’s Bakken region. That type of oil, extracted through hydraulic fracturing, has been under increased scrutiny since a July 2013 derailment killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

That accident and a series of fiery derailments since then have prompted the rail industry and its federal regulators to take steps to improve track conditions and operating practices. A stronger construction standard for tank cars used to ship flammable liquids is being finalized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The California Energy Commission projects that the state could receive more than 20percent of its petroleum supply by rail in the next two years. State emergency officials and fire departments have said they don’t feel they are prepared to handle a major explosion from a derailment.

Earlier this month, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific sued California over a state law that requires railroads to develop oil spill prevention and response plans. The railroads argue that only the federal government has the power to regulate them.

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Information and events on Crude By Rail and Valero's Benicia Refinery