Pittsburg: WesPac oil storage project no longer includes Bakken crude trains
By Sam Richards, 04/01/2015 11:40:04 AM PDT
PITTSBURG — Amid the growing national debate over the safety of transporting crude oil by trains, an energy firm has dropped the rail component from a controversial proposal to transform an old PG&E tank farm into a regional oil storage facility here.
WesPac Midstream LLC’s proposed Pittsburg Terminal Project, which had been attacked by local activists as posing a serious safety threat, is back on the table after a year of dormancy.
But the elimination of the crude-by-rail element doesn’t mean critics are satisfied that a revived oil storage and shipping operation would be safe for the community. The dormant tanks are less than a half-mile from hundreds of houses and apartments on West 10th Street and in the downtown area between Eighth Street and the waterfront.
“There are still environmental issues … having the stored oil in those tanks so close to homes, ground pollution issues, vapors from the big tanks,” said Frank Gordon of Pittsburg, a vocal opponent of the project in the past.
The City Council on Monday is expected to approve another review of the proposed oil storage facility’s environmental impact reports — this time excluding the prospect of rail deliveries.
The WesPac plan, as presented in October 2013, included facilities just north of Parkside Avenue — south of the tank farm — to handle as many as five 104-car oil trainloads a week.
Art Diefenbach, WesPac’s Pittsburg project manager then and now, said this week that the “regulatory environment” surrounding rail shipments of crude oil — in particular, the more volatile Bakken crude from an area covering parts of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan in Canada — isn’t stable enough to plan a major project around.
“We just can’t proceed with that uncertainty floating out there,” said Diefenbach, also noting that falling crude prices help make shipping oil by rail a less attractive alternative, at least in the short term.
He said protests against the crude oil trains — in Pittsburg, the East Bay and the nation — were a factor in the plan change, too. Such decisions, he said, “are always a combination of factors.”
Oil trains, he said, are out of the picture for the foreseeable future.
Several communities in the East Bay have expressed alarm in recent months about the transport of crude by rail through the region in the wake of several high-profile derailments and accidents in North America in recent years, including one in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people and destroyed part of a town. At a meeting in Crockett last week, residents raised concerns about plans to ship oil by rail through Contra Costa County and other parts of the Bay Area to a refinery in Central California.
Without trains, all oil arriving at the WesPac facility would be via either ship or a pipeline from the southern reaches of the Central Valley.
Pittsburg Mayor Pete Longmire said removing the trains from the WesPac equation should result in a safer project for the community. “And it’s probably less controversial than before,” he said.
Although the council will decide Monday night on only an amendment to one of the project’s environmental studies, Longmire expects a large crowd to turn out to discuss what many still likely see as a polluting facility that could present a health danger to the hundreds of people who live near the old tanks.
WesPac Energy, as the company was called then, first applied in March 2011 for needed permits to renovate and restart the former PG&E oil storage and transfer facilities off West 10th Street on the city’s northwestern edge. The $200 million project calls for an average of 242,000 barrels of crude or partially refined crude oil to be unloaded daily from ships on the nearby Sacramento River, and from pipelines, and stored in 16 tanks on 125 acres.
The oil would then be moved to Contra Costa County refineries, and the Valero refinery in Benicia, via pipeline for processing.
The Pittsburg Defense Council, a group of opponents to the WesPac project in general, had decried the prospect of Bakken crude oil coming into town for unloading. Some already has rolled through Pittsburg on BNSF rails, destined for a Kinder-Morgan facility in Richmond.
Diefenbach said that, assuming various approvals come at a typical pace, construction could begin in early 2016, and likely would take from 18 to 24 months.
Longmire said he doesn’t have strong feelings about WesPac either way at this point but insists that the project — with its jobs and its boost to the local economy — must be safe. Gordon said he is still leaning against it. They agree, though, the formal permitting process must be allowed to play out.
Said Gordon, “We’ll have to see what they do with the new” environmental impact report.
If you go…
The Pittsburg City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall council chamber, 65 Civic Ave. in Pittsburg. The public is welcome.
North Dakota’s new oil train safety checks seen missing risks
By Patrick Rucker, Mar 31, 2015 4:14pm EDT
WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – New regulations to cap vapor pressure of North Dakota crude fail to account for how it behaves in transit, according to industry experts, raising doubts about whether the state’s much-anticipated rules will make oil train shipments safer.
High vapor pressure has been identified as a possible factor in the fireball explosions witnessed after oil train derailments in Illinois and West Virginia in recent weeks.
For over a year, federal officials have warned that crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields contains a cocktail of explosive gas – known in the industry as ‘light ends.’
The new rules, which take effect on April 1, aim to contain dangers by spot-checking the vapor pressure of crude before loading and capping it at 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) – about normal atmospheric conditions.
The plan relies on a widely-used test for measuring pressure at the wellhead, but safety experts say gas levels can climb inside the nearly-full tankers, so the checks are a poor indicator of explosion risks for rail shipments.
It is “well-understood, basic physics” that crude oil will exert more pressure in a full container than in the test conditions North Dakota will use, said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, which studies how to safely handle fossil fuels.
Ametek Inc, a leading manufacturer of testing equipment, has detected vapor pressure climbing from about 9 psi to over 30 psi – more than twice the new limit – while an oil tank is filled to near-capacity.
About 70 percent of the roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil produced in North Dakota every day moves by rail to distant refineries and passes through hundreds of cities and towns along the way.
The state controls matter to those communities because there is no federal standard to curb explosive gases in oil trains.
North Dakota officials point out that the pressure limit is more stringent than the industry-accepted definition of “stable” crude oil. They also say that they lack jurisdiction over tank cars leaving the state and that the pressure tests are just one of the measures to make oil trains safer.
“We’re trying to achieve a set of operating practices that generates a safe, reliable crude oil,” Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said. Helms has also said that test readings for near-full containers were less reliable.
However, given different testing and transport conditions, industry officials say the pressure threshold may need to be lowered to reduce the risks.
Limiting vapor pressure to 13.7 psi in transit would require an operator to bring it to “something well below that” at the loading point, Sutton said.
The uncertainty about regulatory reach and safety has spurred calls for the White House to develop national standards to control explosive gas pressure.
“Let me be really clear,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state told reporters last week. “They should set a standard on volatility.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent safety agency, has already encouraged a federal standard for “setting vapor pressure thresholds” for oil trains citing Canadian findings linking such pressure and the size of explosions in train accidents.
Meanwhile, a leading voice for the oil industry is lobbying Congress to resist federal vapor pressure benchmarks.
Last week, the American Petroleum Institute urged lawmakers to oppose “a national volatility standard” and pointed to an Energy Department study that the severity of an oil train mishap may have more to do with the circumstances of the crash than the volatility of the cargo.
That same report said much more study was needed to understand volatility of crude oil from the Bakken. (For a link to the study: tinyurl.com/nvjqmxt)
The oil industry has said that wringing ‘light ends’ out of Bakken crude may keep a share of valuable fuel from reaching refineries.
Reuters reported early this month that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took his concerns about Bakken oil volatility to the White House last summer and sought advice on what to do about the danger of explosive gases.
The administration decided that rather than assert federal authority it would allow the North Dakota rules to take root, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in North Dakota; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Bernard Orr)
For the first time, EIA [The U.S. Energy Information Administration] is providing monthly data on rail movements of crude oil, which have significantly increased over the past five years. The new data on crude-by-rail (CBR) movements are integrated with EIA’s existing monthly petroleum supply statistics, which already include movements by pipeline, tanker, and barge. The new monthly time series of crude oil rail movements includes shipments to and from Canada and dramatically reduces the absolute level of unaccounted for volumes in EIA’s monthly balances for each region.
EIA is initiating the new series with monthly data from January 2010 through the current reporting month, January 2015. CBR activity is tracked between pairs of Petroleum Administration for Defense District (PADD) regions (inter-PADD), within each region (intra-PADD), and across the U.S.-Canada border. EIA developed the new series using information provided by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) along with data from Canada’s National Energy Board, and EIA survey data.
Total CBR movements in the United States and between the United States and Canada were more than 1 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2014, up from 55,000 bbl/d in 2010. The regional distribution of these movements has also changed over this period.
Before digging into the data, a short explanation is required to understand PADDs (Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts). PADDs are geographical regions: PADD 1 is the East Coast, PADD 2 the Midwest, PADD 3 Gulf Coast, PADD 4 Rocky Mountain, PADD 5 West Coast, AK and HI.
From this knowledge, we can now look at each region for the number of barrels shipped and received. For example, let’s look at trends in crude oil shipments by rail for the entire U.S. by using this data table [found here.]
By putting a check box for the row labeled “Total”, we can now view this chart showing oil shipments by rail in the U.S. since 2010.
Besides many excellent charts, we can also look at recent data. This chart [found here] shows the thousands of barrels/day for the month of January 2015:
As you can see, the majority of the oil shipped from the Bakken fields (PADD 2) is shipped east to (PADD 1). 437,000 bbl/day. This is close to what we have calculated is heading through the La Crosse, WI area from both the CP and BNSF rail lines. Although it would be preferred to have data at a more refined level (by rail carrier, through cities, by day & month) at least we are able to now see trends on a regional level. Lot’s of digging to do!
Repost from New American Journal [Editor: This is a telling tale of local governance confronting – or not confronting – difficult issues, and serves as instructional material for others who take up local advocacy. Good graphics. – RS]
Tank Farm Harvest Plans in Mobile — Crude Oil Is the Crop — But What Gets Plowed Under?
By David Underhill, March 31, 2015
MOBILE, Ala. – The tank farms became a hot potato, singeing any official who touched them.
Residents near sites for new or expanding tank farms fired complaints at the city’s planning commission, which readily tossed the heated hassle to the city council. A majority poised to pass a moratorium on construction of tank farms, until promoters of these projects maneuvered to whittle away that majority.
That spawned a citizens’ committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the planning commission, which appointed a subcommittee to receive these recommendations. That subcommittee is now juggling the spud before lobbing it back to the full planning commission, which will fling it again to the city council, which will … who knows.
Last week the subcommittee’s three members met to ponder. Joining them were the planning commission’s lawyer and head staffer. Although this happened in public it wasn’t a public meeting. Citizens could sit and listen but not participate.
The audience sorted themselves, as usual, into factions: the tank farm evangelists in one clump and the unbelievers in another. There were few, if any, neutral observers.
Discussion began with the easy issues: Does the city have satisfactory procedures for deciding whether and where to locate tanks holding hazardous materials? How should the public be informed about impending decisions on these matters? Should the concerns of nearby residents have a prominent role in the proceedings? Can noxious fumes be captured rather than released from tank farms? Must the operators of such facilities provide timely, accurate information to fire departments and other emergency services about dangerous substances on hand?
All agreed that any deficiencies in such issues could be fixed by adjustments to current practices.
Consensus By Garble
Then came the hard part. It was the same item that had flustered the citizens’ committee, which tried to achieve consensus about its recommendations — and largely succeeded — with one contentious exception.
Buffer zones: How broad a safety strip should separate tank farms from homes, schools, churches, hospitals, businesses? The wider the strip the less danger if something goes explosively wrong. But the wider the strip the less land remains for the tanks.
Most of the proposed new and expanding tank farms are squeezed between the waterfront and commercial or residential districts. Broad buffer zones would leave so little land for tanks along the shore that the planned facilities must shrink drastically, perhaps to the vanishing point.
This applies in the north Mobile neighborhood of Africatown, settled by the human cargo from the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S. The huge tank farm intended there would squat between the waterfront and a dense residential area.
Some on the citizens’ committee wanted a setback half a mile wide to protect Africatown. Others, more attuned to industry’s wishes, wanted a lot less.
This conflict strained the quest for consensus and garbled the passages about buffer zones in the committee’s final report. Now the same wrangle vexes the planning commission’s subcommittee and it too has found no easy solution, as the discussion at last week’s meeting revealed.
Consensus By Punting
Nobody on the subcommittee wanted to specify a number for the width of buffer zones. They said projects would differ by location and each should be considered on its own merits. Maybe, they suggested, a minimum width could be required with an option for wider setbacks where warranted by circumstances.
But they shied from saying what that minimum should be. Instead they instructed the staff to produce maps showing the sectors of the city zoned for heavy industry — where tank farms might locate — with surrounding buffers in 500 foot increments. These maps will illustrate where the desires of tank farm developers collide with people living and working within 500, 1,000 or 1,500 feet (and maybe more increments).
And the subcommittee speculated about stretching the buffers with words. Must the setback be measured from the boundary of a tank farm site to the boundary of a nearby residential zone? Or might it be measured from the porch of the nearest inhabited home to the position of the tanks within the site. Then the necessary buffer could be created by moving the tanks to the farthest part of the site and putting offices and other support facilities in the part closest to residences.
The maps will not say what the width of a buffer ought to be or where it should be measured from. The subcommittee will have to decide this and they are not ready to do so. They will meet again next month to study the maps. And they instructed their attorney to draft a prospective report to the full planning commission about any changes their deliberations may require in the city’s zoning or other regulations.
Consensus By Omission
This was a deft juggling of the hot potato. But the subcommittee didn’t dare to even touch the truly searing produce.
They recognized that approving tank farms implies approving the transport of substances to fill those tanks. In Mobile that means trains pulling long, hazardous chains of tanker cars brimming with crude oil. Subcommittee members remarked upon fiery accidents elsewhere by such trains (opponents call them bomb trains and the neighborhoods along their routes blast zones) and fretted about repeats here. But the subcommittee pleaded impotence. They said railroads are regulated by others, who have the responsibility to oversee safety.
But the trains wouldn’t be coming to town without tank farms to receive their cargoes. And the subcommittee, as a branch of the planning commission, does have a say in whether these tank farms exist. Yet the members were hesitant about linking tank farm decisions to dangers from trains.
They have the legal authority to attend to the health and safety of the people. But they acted like their main responsibility is fostering economic development. And they said repeatedly, in various phrasings, that expanding waterfront tank farms equals economic development.
To them, anybody prepared to invest any big wad of money in anything is welcome. They didn’t consider (not out loud, at least) the elementary idea that devoting the waterfront to tank farms prevents other uses of the shoreline that might be more desirable development.
While subcommittee members did note risks from tank farms, they said repeatedly that a balance must be found between economic development and public safety. This might be a valid approach if the benefits and hazards of tank farms were spread evenly across the city. But they are not. The hazards are highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and the benefits go mainly to investors elsewhere collecting profits. This is an inherent imbalance.
And if the benefits and hazards were distributed evenly across the community that still doesn’t assure a balance between development and safety. Weighing such a balance assumes that pluses and minuses can be calculated like a mathematical formula and a solution found. But what if circumstances make this impossible? Then the choice isn’t to have both development and safety — it’s one or the other.
Massively deadly chemical (Bhopal, India) and nuclear (Chernobyl, Ukraine; Fukushima, Japan) accidents left ruins surrounded by evacuated wastelands. Nothing comparable has happened yet with petroleum but a couple years ago in Canada an oil tanker train derailed and burned the center of a town (Lac-Megantic, Quebec) to cinders. Scores of residents died. The plans being made for oil storage and transport in Mobile contain the potential for similar or worse disasters. How could that balance development and safety?
The subcommittee made no attempt to balance economic development against the greatest environmental hazard. It was simply ignored. The city already has a throng of large petrochemical storage tanks and the planned expansions would add dozens. Most of these are near the waterfront just a few feet above sea level. The battering waves of a major hurricane could come ashore on a storm surge 20-30 feet deep. And they would bring chunks of debris serving as piercing projectiles.
Loose the contents from just a few of these tanks and the Exxon Valdez and BP’s offshore oil well become footnotes. The story history books will tell is the fate of Mobile’s river and bay.
Is such a catastrophe unlikely? Yes. Is it possible? Yes. Planners need to take this into account. The subcommittee didn’t address it in the slightest.
An Offer They Can’t Refuse?
Another awkward topic ignored was the temptation to evict. Although the subcommittee spoke openly about fashioning buffers by backing dangerous tanks away from the boundaries of industrial zones abutting residential ones, they did not mention the obvious prospect of doing the opposite.
This discussion pertained specifically to Africatown, where a giant tank farm wants to arise across the street from homes. Creating a broad buffer there by pushing the tanks back from the street and toward the water might leave so little land available for tanks that the project dies.
But if the houses are removed then the buffer would be created on the other side of the street, and the tanks could fill the whole industrial tract as originally designed. While the residents might be defiant about clinging to their ancestral homes, what happens when they begin receiving pressure to leave plus attractive prices for selling out?
This would amount to eviction, achieved by financial means. Or legal means might be used. A state’s power of eminent domain has been expanding. Previously the government could compel the sale of private property only for plainly public uses, like highways and parks. Lately private developments like shopping centers and pipelines have been declared public enough for the land they need to be seized under eminent domain. Why couldn’t that reasoning apply to homes located where a tank farm needs a buffer zone?
My Brother’s Keeper?
The tanker trains arriving in Mobile come on the Canadian National railroad from the tar sands mining moonscape of Alberta province. But extensive tar sands strata underlie north Alabama. Prospectors are taking technical and regulatory steps toward extracting these deposits.
Activists in Mobile assume the motive behind much of the urge for expanding tank farms is to hold tar sands coming by train from upstate for transfer into ships. In that case, local officials who allow tank farm expansion are also allowing large swaths of the mining region to be gouged and polluted — because those tar sands won’t be mined unless the output can get to market by boat.
If the planning commission’s subcommittee cared about this they should have said so. They didn’t. Their decisions will influence whether north Alabama becomes a replica of wrecked Alberta. But they behaved like they care about nothing except the benefits or detriments inside the Mobile city limits.
In this loudly Christian area their attitude was: Hell, no! I’m not my brother’s keeper. Eff them. I’m looking out for me.
This myopia is especially astonishing in a port that will drown when the oceans rise. Continuing to dump annual megatons of greenhouse gasses into the air by burning fossil fuels will melt the polar ice and flood every seafront.
Even if all the tank farms anticipated here are built, Mobile’s contribution to this tonnage will be trivial. Every separate place’s will be trivial.
Just as during World War II in the U.S. everybody with a yard was expected to have a Victory Garden, and nobody’s individual Victory Garden won the war. Perhaps not even all the Victory Gardens together freed enough cropland to feed the soldiers. But these gardens displayed purpose and resolve. That’s what Mobile’s refusal to host more fossil fuel tanks would do.
Yet the subcommittee acted like they don’t care to be even their own port city’s keeper. In Florida, at least, officials have an excuse for such behavior. The governor has ordered them to delete from their vocabularies all such terms as global warming, climate change, melting icecaps, rising seas.
In Mobile officials do this voluntarily. Perhaps their silence springs from fear of political retribution if they acknowledge that those global trends result from fossil foolishness. But even if these officials stand among the dwindling corps who sincerely deny the obvious, they still ought to address it.
This has become a subject that no longer submits to silence. Too many people have become too anxious about it for deniers in authority to merely ignore it. They need to address it, if only to swat it aside. But the subcommittee said nothing.
When this issue reaches the full planning commission, they also will be tempted to maintain a politically safe silence. Then the city council.
To avoid singeing their fingers on the hot potato, they will let the planet continue to cook.
Imagine the reaction if they said instead that they will not permit the expansion of tank farms on the Mobile waterfront. And challenged all other port cities to do the same.
It would be a revolutionary act. Also sane and healthy.