Chico editorial: Train derailment in canyon a cautionary tale

Repost from Chico Enterprise-Record

Editorial: Train derailment in canyon a cautionary tale


When a train derailed in the Feather River Canyon above Belden on Tuesday and dropped tons of corn in the river, it was natural to chuckle uneasily that it was only corn.

Nobody was injured, no animals died, the river’s ecosystem will recover and Union Pacific, while on the hook for a difficult cleanup operation in a steep area, talked largely about how the company was fortunate — because it knows it could have been a whole lot worse.

What should be worrisome to the rest of us is that only Union Pacific seems to know how bad things could get — and Union Pacific isn’t sharing, apparently not even with government officials.

With a surge in crude oil pumped from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana and not enough pipelines to move it across the United States, oil companies have taken to moving the explosive type of oil on railroads. Union Pacific is undoubtedly being compensated handsomely to do so. But moving it from east to west means coming through the picturesque Feather River Canyon, along Highway 70 above Lake Oroville.

Oroville residents have noticed an alarming increase in the number of oil trains, with their black tanker cars, coming through town, headed south. But nobody knows how many trains. The railroad keeps that information close to the vest. Still, the Butte and Plumas county offices of emergency services should know, just in case it has to respond to a derailment, which likely would be accompanied by an explosion. One would think …

But Plumas County’s director of emergency services, Jerry Sipe, says Union Pacific hasn’t advised the county of when or how often the trains come through. Sipe said he’d like the rail companies to provide training and equipment needed to respond to oil train derailments.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, when asked by a reporter about the frequency of oil trains, answered in an email.

“For safety and commercial-competitive reasons,” he wrote, “Union Pacific provides specific commodity route information for its trains only to appropriate response agencies. We cannot address what commodities may travel on other railroads. This route is one where oil may be transported based upon the needs of our customers.”

Well, we think those who live along the route and those who might be asked to respond to a disaster deserve better answers. Local lawmakers from Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, to Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, and state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, should intervene to demand more transparency.

Nobody should wait until after the first explosion of an oil train to say, “We need to do something about this.” The best time to act is now.

Though Union Pacific’s Hunt points out repeatedly that UP has reduced derailments by 23 percent in the past 10 years, the fact is that trains still derail, and all it takes is one. An explosion would be disastrous. An oil spill in the river system would be as well.

The Feather River Canyon is a treacherous stretch of track, with curves, rock slides and erosion all factors that can contribute to derailments. The fact that UP says it doesn’t know what caused last week’s derailment means, so far anyway, it will be less likely to prevent them in the immediate future.

Let’s get out in front of this problem. As other states have learned, explosions are an increasing possibility. We like first responders to be prepared, not left in the dark.

Falling oil prices: what impact on North American crude by rail?

In Benicia, some are wondering about implications for and against Valero’s crude-by-rail proposal
By Roger Straw, November 29, 2014

The business news pages of mainline media are repeatedly trumpeting the dramatic decline in the price of oil.  Regular folks here are happy to see gas prices at the pump at or below $3/gallon.  Business Insider reports that “The decline in the price of oil has been fast and furious, with oil prices falling more than 30% since June.”  This has been near disastrous for some petroleum producers.  (See links below for details.)

New Eastern Outlook author William Engdahl offered a broad global political perspective on November 3.  According to Engdahl, “The collapse in US oil prices since September may very soon collapse the US shale oil bubble and tear away the illusion that the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer. That illusion, fostered by faked resource estimates issued by the US Department of Energy, has been a lynchpin of Obama geopolitical strategy.”

Engdahl continues, “The end of the shale oil bubble would deal a devastating blow to the US oil geopolitics. Today an estimated 55% of US oil production and all the production increase of the past several years comes from fracking for shale oil. With financing cut off because of economic risk amid falling oil prices, shale oil drillers will be forced to halt new drilling that is needed merely to maintain a steady oil output.”

Will North American crude oil supply dry up sooner than predicted?  Will volatile global and American oil pricing make offloading oil trains a riskier business proposition than previously thought?

What are planners at Valero saying about this?  More importantly, what are they thinking, and talking about behind closed doors?  Will anyone be hitting a pause button on crude-by-rail, or will they be hitting the accelerator?

Read more:

Benicia Mayor responds: Staying the course on public health, safety, welfare

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor:  Benicia’s Mayor Elizabeth Patterson responds that she will stand firm “with zeal, diligence and fidelity to the public interest.”  It would take a book-length treatise to document the near countless ways in which Mayor Patterson has helped move Benicia to embrace a sustainable identity and future.  It would take another book to document the constant drumbeat of opposition she has endured since her campaign for re-election in 2011.  Someone should write those books!  – RS]

Elizabeth Patterson: Staying the course on public health, safety, welfare

November 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

I WOULD LIKE TO RESPOND TO A COUPLE OF recent letters commenting about our city attorney that were published in The Benicia Herald. I personally prefer people to focus on issues and not staff. It should not be about staff, since they work for the City Council.

What was noted in one letter in defense of the city attorney was, in my experience, the extraordinary, passionate and lengthy defense of the city attorney by Vice Mayor Tom Campbell. Keep in mind the issue at hand is my so-called “biased” conflict of interest based on the E-Alerts I send. It is a difficult position for staff when one Council member questions another. Where do you draw the line? What is in the best interest of the city?

Most of my E-Alerts are about community goings-on, events, meeting notices and issues of public interest and concern. I send these e-Alerts when my workload and time allow. The following is what I always have printed at the foot of my E-Alert:

“This site is my responsibility and my discretion including recipients and material. Requests for posting are honored and I encourage readers to share information. An informed society is essential. Material on this site is my personal domain and does not reflect official city policy. Posting material on this site does not indicate bias for future decision making. Use of words and terminology, notice about events, forums and public concerns is not dicta nor determinative for future decisions. The more sunshine on issues, events, happenings and concerns, the better the public is aware of choices so that government is open and accessible to all and not just the few. Public discourse is the path to fair and informed decisions.”

As my attorney has written, “(W)e understand that you have acted in accordance with this statement, and we have not reviewed any email alerts or other communications which suggest otherwise.”

What differs from my attorney’s information and the city attorney’s outside counsel, Mike Jenkins, is that only select emails were sent to Jenkins while my attorney received multiple batches of complete past E-Alerts as well as all current ones. As my attorney wrote, “(Y)ou have requested our guidance on the laws which apply to you as a public official in California with respect to this matter and similar matters which may come before the city in the future. Our firm has many years of experience and expertise with respect to conflict-of-interest issues for public officials in California.

“As mayor, you have taken a leadership role on providing information to the city residents, and speaking out on the health and safety issues raised by the proposal to increase the (Valero crude-by-rail) train deliveries.

“In summary, based on our review of the facts, it is our opinion that you do not have a disqualifying conflict of interest in the Valero matter based on the Political Reform Act (Gov. Code section 81000, et seq.) which is the primary set of statutes governing public official conflicts of interest and which covers financial conflicts of interest. In addition, since the matter does not involve a contract with the city, Government Code section 1090 does not apply.”

My attorney’s opinion discussed the court decisions holding that public officers must exercise their powers with “disinterested skill, zeal, and diligence and primarily for the benefit of the public,” and that “fidelity to the public interest is the primary purpose of conflict of interest laws.” Indeed, public officers are obliged to fulfill their responsibilities with both honesty and loyalty. If they are influenced by any “base and improper considerations” of personal advantage, they violate their oaths of office.

Jenkins’s opinion cited numerous appellate cases about elected officials having personal reasons for acting toward a city employee and other personnel and contract matters of an elected official. These cases are not on point in my case. My E-Alerts are informing the public about issues affecting public health, safety and welfare.

Jenkins cites another case involving a court holding that a planning commissioner was “biased.” This case is distinguished from the Fairfield case because a) it involves an appointed official, not an elected one; and b) the commissioner actually wrote an argument against a project before it came before the elected body.

The California Supreme Court wrote in the Fairfield decision that “(t)hese topics are matters of concern to the civic-minded people of the community, who will naturally exchange views and opinions. . . . A councilman (sic) has not only a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern with his constituents and to state his views of public importance.” The Fairfield decision has not been overturned or revised by the court and remains the law applicable in similar circumstances.

Because my interest is to provide the public information about vital public health, safety and welfare issues, I send, without expressing an opinion on a specific project, information about relevant meetings, including public and quasi-public (Valero) issues and news regarding national, regional and local issues.

Therefore, I will rely on the advice of my attorney, to wit: “Your current course as spelled out in the statement included on your email alerts . . . is certainly consistent with both (court) decisions and prudent under all of the circumstances. Accordingly, we would advise you to stay your current course of engaging in the exchange of information and discussion of the issues and supporting the process for public education and engagement on the issues while avoiding any specific statements of opposition to the pending permit decision and keeping an even-handed approach to your interactions with the public and all others involved in the matter.”

With zeal, diligence and fidelity to the public interest, Elizabeth Patterson

Elizabeth Patterson is the mayor of Benicia.

The Destructive Legacy of Tar Sands Oil

Repost from Co.Exist
[Editor: Great photos, best viewed on Co.Exist.  Also of interest on Co.Exist: This Is What Your City Would Look Like If All The World’s Ice Sheets Melt– RS]

As The Keystone Pipeline Inches Closer, Look At The Destructive Legacy Of Tar Sands Oil

A bird’s-eye view of the post-apocalyptic landscape that we’ve already created.
By Adele Peters, November 24, 2014 
Pine Bend Refinery, Rosemont, MN
Strips mines cover an area of forest seven times larger than Manhattan. Uncovered rail cars Loading Petroleum Coke, a byproduct of tar sands refining, Pine Bend Refinery, Rosemont, MN

By a single vote, the U.S. Senate failed to fast-track the approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline last week, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil straight across the nation to the Gulf of Mexico. Lawmakers are expected to approve it in January, however, and President Obama may or may not let it squeak through.

A new photo series traces the path of the proposed pipeline, from the tar sands in Alberta to massive refineries in Texas. The photos make something clear: With or without the pipeline, huge amounts of tar sands oil are already being extracted and flowing into the U.S. Over the last four years, the amount of Canadian crude sent to Texas has increased by 83%.

Photographer Alex MacLean first flew over Alberta last winter, taking shots of a post-apocalyptic landscape that are hard to capture from the ground.

Meandering Channel of Wastewater, Suncor Mine, Alberta, Canada

Strip mines cover an area of forest seven times larger than Manhattan. Since most of the tar sands are buried deep underground, and the molasses-like bitumen is too thick to extract on its own, the oil companies have also built enormous boilers to liquefy the sludge.

“Looking at the pictures of the huge furnaces they have to use in the wells, you can see how much energy this takes to extract,” says MacLean. “If you’re driving around with this fuel, it’s 17% to 20% more carbon intense than regular gas.”

MacLean returned to the oil fields again last summer with journalist Daniel Grossman, and then traveled on to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast that are already processing tar sands oil.

The Alberta Clipper line ships 450,000 barrels of oil to Wisconsin every day. One branch splits off to Detroit, where a refinery caused a three-day long oil spill in a river in 2010.

Steam and smoke rise from upgrading facility at Syncrude Mildred Lake Mine, Alberta, Canada

“That was a billion-dollar cleanup,” says MacLean. “It was totally overshadowed—they call it the oil spill no one ever heard of, because it happened almost simultaneously with the BP spill in the Gulf.”

Enbridge, the company responsible for that spill, managed to avoid a lengthy approval process to increase its capacity; by next year, it expects to ship 800,000 barrels of oil per day. Unlike the well-publicized Keystone project, it didn’t need a new permit, but instead connected two parallel pipelines running along the border. MacLean’s photos show new lines under construction.

In the Gulf, the photos show the refineries that Keystone may eventually connect to Alberta.

“The size of the capital investment is just staggering—hundreds of billions of dollars of refining infrastructure along the coast,” MacLean says. “It’s just incredible amounts of money. You realize that the pipeline, which is around $4 billion, is just small change in the scheme of things. They can spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying to get the pipeline through.”

MacLean hopes the photos help us better understand the impact of a possible approval.

“I think if we’re really going to seriously mitigate climate change, we really need to start now and not put in infrastructure that’s going to last 30 years,” he says. “We’d be saddled with these type of investments, when we’d be better off putting both our know-how and our money towards more sustainable resources.”

[By Adele Peters.   Adele Peters is a writer who focuses on sustainability and design and lives in Oakland, California. She’s worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.  All photos: Alex MacLean]