Santa Maria Refinery’s controversial oil train project is topic of public forum
By KCBX Newsroom, Tue March 31, 2015 5:16 pm
A train transporting oil through San Jose, one of the many municipalities that has expressed concern over the Phillips 66 rail project. Credit Flickr member Drew Jacksich
A controversial plan to ship oil by train to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery will be the topic of a public discussion Thursday night in Grover Beach.
Key players from both sides of the issue are scheduled to attend. Representatives from Phillips 66, as well as the Oil Refinery Watch Group [Mesa Refinery Watch Group] are expected to present their arguments for and against the rail project.
The forum is being organized by Karen Bright with the South County Democratic Club of San Luis Obispo County. Bright says this issue is important to many people in the area.
“We had put it out to our members—various things and items, subject matter that they’d like to have presentations on throughout the year—and this was the one that rose to the top,” said Bright. “I think because it’s so current and there are so many differences of opinion, so we just wanted to get the facts from both sides.”
A growing number of cities, counties, and other governmental bodies located along the Union Pacific rail line have expressed concern over the project. They’ve sent official letters to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission.
Phillips 66 says a quarter million barrels of crude oil would arrive at the facility each week, should the rail connector be approved.
The company says that crude would be transported on modern rail cars that exceed current regulatory safety standards.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Grover Beach Trouville Community Center, 1230 Trouville Avenue, Grover Beach, CA
Meeting starts at 7:00 p.m.
Contact: South County Democratic Club of San Luis Obispo County
Fixing railroad tank cars gains traction after recent derailments
By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, March 30, 2015
Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, Calif. RANDALL BENTON — MCT
WASHINGTON — While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.
Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for more robust tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.
Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.
Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a more robust design to account for the exponential increase in energy traffic on the rails before they invest an additional cent.
The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry adopted its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.
The DOT-111A tank car
About 92,000 DOT-111s are in use; 78,000 lack extra safety features. Most tank cars are leased by oil companies or other firms moving products by rail.
And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors and governors, community and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.
The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a package of proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.
For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying dramatically larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.
The minimally reinforced cars proved vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.
“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is already building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the No. 1 thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”
After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ultimately ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.
The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.
“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.
Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting on the White House for final approval.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with three Democratic co-sponsors – Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin – introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would force new cars to meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.
“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” she said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”
The redesigned tank car may look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation and an outer jacket.
Last year, railroads voluntarily agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in a select number of densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.
All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just 9 mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.
The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.
Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank car improvements are a crucial step.
“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”
Oil containers sat at a train depot outside Williston, North Dakota. Andrew Burton | Getty Images 2013
MOORHEAD, Minn. — North Dakota environmentalists want oil companies to reduce volatile gasses in Bakken crude. Regulators, however, say they’re taking a different tack that’s cheaper for the industry and still improves safety.
The gasses remain a flashpoint for producers, environmental and safety groups concerned about transporting the highly flammable Bakken crude. Oil train shipments from the Bakken have skyrocketed in recent years, heightening the worries.
Environmental groups have been pushing the state to require that producers install equipment to stabilize the crude using a process that heats the oil to a higher temperature to release more gasses.
North Dakota officials, however, say the more stringent heating requirement would cost oil companies as much as $2 per barrel.
Instead, state inspectors starting April 1 will check oil at well sites to make sure the vapor pressure runs no greater than 13.7 pounds per square inch of Reid Vapor Pressure, the measurement standard of volatile gases in crude oil. Oil involved in a recent West Virginia derailment and explosion had a vapor pressure slightly higher, 13.9 psi.
The North Dakota standard is tougher than the 14.7 psi federal standard for crude oil, although it’s still more volatile than gasoline sold in Minnesota in the summer, which has a maximum vapor pressure of 9.
Regulators say their method will maintain safety but cost an estimated 10 cents a barrel, compared to the $2 per barrel for the stabilization gas removal process. Companies found violating the new regulation can be fined $12,500 per day.
The industry disputes that Bakken crude is more volatile, but says most North Dakota crude meets the new standard already.
“I think a lot of people have wondered, well, is this going to cure the problem. And our answer is that by itself, it is not the cure,” said Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources.
The new, lower vapor standard is a step in the right direction but safer rail cars are also a critical part of the solution, Helms added. The federal government is considering new rules for safer tank cars that might include thicker steel shells and larger pressure relief valves.
“If you combine our lower vapor pressure standard with the these high capacity relief valves we should be able to get away from these boiling liquid explosive vapor incidents which create the large explosions if and when we have a derailment,” Helms added.
Larger relief valves could allow rapidly expanding gases to escape, preventing rail tank cars from exploding. But critics point out those volatile gases could still catch fire. A newer tank car with improved safety features, the CPC 1232, has been involved in at least two recent oil train derailment and explosion incidents.
Environmentalists argue North Dakota could make the oil much safer.
“The bottom line profitability of the oil industry is trumping all the rest of us, our safety,” said Don Morrison with the North Dakota environmental group Dakota Resource Council.
Much of the light crude oil in Texas is stabilized before it’s shipped, he added. “To stabilize the oil so it is safer like they do in Texas, oil companies are going to have to spend some money. That is true. But isn’t that the cost of doing business?”
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents the oil industry, did not respond to an interview request.
In December 2013, the potential for disaster became very real after train cars of Bakken oil derailed, caught fire and exploded outside Casselton, N.D., near the Minnesota state line. Derailments and fires involving Bakken crude since then have heightened the worry.
Fred Millar, a Washington-based lobbyist and consultant on hazardous materials transportation, contends the new North Dakota standards would not have changed the outcome of a deadly 2013 oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec in Canada.
Train cars of Bakken crude involved in the Lac Megantic explosion and fire had a vapor pressure of about 9 psi, according to Canadian investigators.
A search of public records and news reports identified 14 derailments involving crude oil trains in the past two years in North America. Fire was involved in nine of the accidents.
New regulations are unlikely to stop crude oil train accidents, Millar said.
“Anybody who’s kind of hoping that somehow there’s going to be this magic bullet or some new set of federal regulations that’s going to make this situation safe,” he said, “I have bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”