Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
Oil trains into Richmond spark lawsuitBy David R. Baker, April 5, 2014
Little noticed by neighbors, trains carrying crude oil from the Great Plains have been rumbling into a Richmond rail yard.
The cargo is the same kind of crude that fueled a deadly explosion last summer when a train carrying the oil derailed in a small Quebec town, killing 47. Now environmentalists are suing to prevent any more shipments to Richmond.
The suit, filed last week in state Superior Court in San Francisco, would revoke a permit issued by a regional agency in February that allows Kinder Morgan to unload oil trains in Richmond at a facility originally built to unload ethanol.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District granted the permit without studying how the switch from shipping ethanol to oil could affect the environment, said Kristen Boyles, staff attorney with Earthjustice, the group that filed the suit on behalf of four other environmental organizations.
“These things are going in without a lot of thought to their safety, their impact on the environment and their possible health effects,” Boyles said. “That’s what’s really frustrating with this situation – how little we know until this is rolling through our backyards.”
Kinder Morgan declined comment.
Ralph Borrmann, an agency spokesman, said the change in fuels handled by Kinder Morgan’s rail-yard facility would not increase air pollution – his agency’s primary concern.
“There were no emissions consequences as a result of the permit, no net increase of emissions, which is what we look at,” Borrmann said.
Just a few years ago, California didn’t import oil by rail. But that’s changing fast.
In 2009, railways carried just 45,000 barrels of oil into the Golden State, according to the California Energy Commission. By last year, that number had soared to 6.2 million barrels. A barrel equals 42 gallons.
California’s refineries have turned to rail to access a glut of petroleum in the Great Plains. Oil production in the Bakken Shale formation that lies beneath North Dakota and Montana has surged so much, so quickly, that area’s pipelines lack the capacity to transport the fuel. As a result, the Bakken oil sells at a discount to other kinds of crude.
Oil by rail is “about discounted oil, delivered to your doorstep,” said Gordon Schremp, senior analyst with the Energy Commission.
The amount of oil carried by rail is rising nationwide. While most of those shipments reach their destination without incident, the United States and Canada have recently seen a series of oil-train accidents leading to explosions and fires, including last July’s derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. In January, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an alert warning that Bakken crude, much lighter than many other grades of oil, may be more flammable as well.
The warning spurred opposition to a series of oil-by-rail projects in California. Valero’s refinery in Benicia is seeking approval to build a rail yard that could move 70,000 barrels of oil each day, replacing more than half of the petroleum the refinery now imports from abroad, via ship.
In Pittsburg, another project would bring in oil by ship, pipeline and rail. The $200 million proposal, by WesPac Energy, would refurbish an old Pacific Gas and Electric Co. facility to import, store and supply oil to Bay Area refineries.
Community groups have spent months fighting those proposals. But most Richmond residents knew nothing about Kinder Morgan’s Richmond rail facility until television station KPIX reported on the issue last month.
Kinder Morgan applied to convert its existing ethanol offloading facility last year, and won an operating permit from the air district in February. KPIX filmed trucks carrying oil from the facility to the Tesoro refinery in Martinez.
A Tesoro spokeswoman on Friday declined to confirm whether the refinery collaborates with Kinder Morgan’s Richmond facility. But she said the refinery uses about 5,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil per day taken from rail shipments, equal to between two and four train shipments per month.
Earthjustice and its partners in the suit – the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club – want Kinder Morgan’s operating permit in Richmond revoked until the company conducts a full environmental impact review.
“The risk of train accidents is huge with this kind of crude oil,” Boyles said.