Tag Archives: Alon USA

New crude oil report concludes risks of train spills are real

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor: Highly significant development – a must read!  – RS]

New crude oil report concludes risks of train spills are real

By Tony Bizjak, 10/23/2014
A train carrying fuel passes through a Bakersfield neighborhood last summer. The dramatic increase in crude oil shipments around the United States and Canada, often on 100-car trains, has led to several major derailments and fires.
A train carrying fuel passes through a Bakersfield neighborhood last summer. The dramatic increase in crude oil shipments around the United States and Canada, often on 100-car trains, has led to several major derailments and fires. Jose Luis Villegas

Mile-long oil trains that are expected to crisscross California daily in the coming years pose significant risks to residents of urban areas, including Sacramento, a new report concludes, contradicting earlier studies that found no major safety concerns.

The report, issued by San Luis Obispo County officials, is based on a plan by Phillips 66 to transport crude oil on 80-car trains, five days a week, to its Santa Maria refinery, some likely through Sacramento. The authors looked at the cumulative impact of all oil trains that could come through California on a daily basis and came to the conclusion that the risk of oil spills and fires is real, and offered suggestions on how those issues should be addressed.

“Up to seven crude oil trains a day could travel on the stretch of track between Roseville and Sacramento,” the report reads. “The cumulative risk would be significant.”

The analysis, called a draft environmental impact report, contrasts with two recent analyses of similar crude-by-rail projects in Benicia and Bakersfield. Valero Refining Co. in Benicia and Alon USA in Bakersfield are proposing to transport crude oil twice a day on trains into their facilities. The Valero trains would come through downtown Sacramento, Roseville, West Sacramento and Davis, likely on the same tracks as the Santa Maria refinery trains. Some of the Bakersfield-bound trains also may come through Sacramento.

Those reports, issued earlier this summer, concluded the risk of spills and oil fires in Sacramento and other areas is not significant and requires no additional safety steps. Those earlier analyses have been challenged. An environmental group, Earthjustice, has sued Kern County over its Bakersfield project review. Two state safety agencies and the state attorney general have sent letters to Benicia challenging the adequacy of its review of the Valero project.

San Luis Obispo County officials said they decided to go beyond what was done in Benicia and Kern County – breaking new ground in California’s evolving crude-by-rail debate – by conducting a qualitative risk assessment, to understand the ramifications of “reasonable” worst-case oil spill scenarios. The new report is an amended version of an earlier report San Luis Obispo issued last year, which also had been challenged as inadequate.

“We have been trying to keep an eye on what is going on around the state, to understand comments coming in on the Valero project and others, and to take a holistic approach,” said San Luis Obispo County project manager Murry Wilson.

That qualitative assessment takes special note of spill risks in urban areas, saying, “The risk is primarily driven by the high-threat urban areas (Los Angeles, Bay Area and Sacramento) since these are the locations where fairly long stretches of track are in close proximity to heavily populated areas.” A series of tables in the report indicate that injuries and deaths could occur up to a third of a mile from a crash site in urban areas, if there was a tank car rupture and explosive fire.

The report points out that derailments of oil trains are rare. The chances of a train spilling more than 100 gallons of oil en route from the California border in the north state to the Santa Maria refinery are anywhere from one-in-19 to one-in-31 in any given year, depending on the route, the county estimated. Similarly, railroad industry officials say their data show that 99.99 percent of freight trains arrive at their destinations safely.

But the dramatic increase in the last few years of crude oil shipments around the United States and Canada, often on 100-car trains, has led to several major derailments and fires, prompting concerns from cities along rail lines, and federal safety officials. Last year in Canada, a runaway crude oil train crashed in a small town and exploded, killing 47 people, many as they slept. Several other crude oil trains have been involved in dramatic explosions around the country in the past year, prompting evacuations of residential areas.

At the moment, two crude oil trains run to or through Sacramento. One carries highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota through midtown Sacramento a few times a month to a distribution facility in the East Bay. Another periodically brings oil to a transfer station at McClellan Business Park in North Highlands. The company that runs the transfer station agreed this week to halt those shipments after air-quality officials concluded they had issued the permit in error.

The daily trains to the Santa Maria refinery, if approved, are expected to travel on both southern or northern routes into the state, starting in 2016, depending on where Phillips decides to buy its U.S.-produced oil. The Northern California route is uncertain east of Roseville. West of Roseville, trains are likely to run through downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis and through East Bay cities, but also could take a route through Sacramento to Stockton, then west into the Bay Area.

San Luis Obispo County officials, in their report, also went considerably further than officials in Benicia and Kern County on the question of “mitigation” or preventive measures that could be put in place to minimize risks of crashes and spills.

Federal law pre-empts cities, counties and states from imposing any safety requirements on the railroads. San Luis Obispo County officials suggest, however, in their report that the county could try using its permitting authority over the proposed Phillips 66 refinery expansion to require Phillips to sign agreements with the railroads ensuring that the railroads use safer tanker cars than those currently in use, and employ better train-control computer technology than is currently in place.

An expert on railroad law told The Sacramento Bee this week that a court likely would have to decide if such a move is legal. “The federal pre-emption of the local regulation of railroads is very strong, about as strong a pre-emption as exists,” said attorney Mike Conneran of the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco. “It makes sense. You can’t have a different rule every time a rail car pulls into another state or city.”

“I can see there being a (legal) fight on that,” he said. “It is pretty close to the line in telling the railroad what to do. On the other hand, the county is putting the obligation on the refinery, not the railroad. I think the real question may come down to whether such a mitigation measure is feasible if the refinery can’t force the railroad to comply.”

If San Luis Obispo officials determine that they cannot feasibly mitigate for the Phillips 66 project’s potential hazards, the county can still approve the project, in accordance with California law, if county leaders adopt a “statement of overriding considerations,” saying that the project’s benefits outweigh the adverse effects.

Sacramento-area representatives, who have criticized Benicia’s review of its Valero project as inadequate, say they have not yet reviewed the San Luis Obispo analysis.

“We’ll do a similar analysis to what we filed with Benicia,” said Steve Cohn, chair of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. He said San Luis Obispo’s determination that a train could spill here and cause significant damage is logical, but he wondered what proposed safety measures follow from that conclusion. “We’ll have to take a look,” he said.

It is uncertain at this point whether all of the crude oil train transport projects being proposed in California will actually be built. And, if they are, it’s uncertain still how many of them will route their trains through Sacramento and Northern California. The shipments will come from oil producing areas in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and other states, as well as Canada.

Benicia officials did not respond to questions from The Bee for comment about their environmental analysis of the Valero project.

Notably, both Benicia and San Luis Obispo based a portion of their reports on analysis by an Illinois professor, Christopher Barkan, who also does work for a major rail industry lobbying group. Barkan’s methods of determining the potential frequency of oil spills have been questioned by state safety officials. Barkan has declined to speak to The Bee.

Barkan estimated that a spill from a Phillips 66 train between Roseville and Santa Maria might happen once in 46 years if the trains use the Altamont Pass and once in 59 years if the trains use the tracks along the Interstate 80 corridor. Those numbers appear to be based on trains using the best available tanker cars.

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    Residents and environmental groups sue to stop Kern County crude oil project

    Repost from The Sacramento Bee
    [Editor: For details and contacts, see the press release by The Center for Biological Diversity.  Here is a link to the full complaint.  – RS]

    Environmentalists sue to stop Kern County crude oil project

    By Tony Bizjak, Oct. 9, 2014

    A coalition of residents and environmental groups has filed a lawsuit challenging Kern County’s approval last month of what would be the largest crude-by-rail project in the state.

    Kern officials unanimously gave the OK in September to the Alon USA refining company to transform a mothballed Bakersfield refinery into a combination refinery and receiving station for trains transporting crude oil from out of state.

    It would be the largest crude-by-rail transfer station in California, twice the size of a similar facility being planned in the Bay Area city of Benicia by the Valero Refining Co. Potentially, the Bakersfield station could receive trains carrying flammable Bakken oil from North Dakota through Central Valley cities, including Sacramento.

    The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, contends the county did not fully assess the project’s health risks to state residents. Those risks, Earthjustice says, include the possibility of explosions if trains derail enroute to the refinery. The lawsuit argues that the project will further degrade air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and cited the region’s high levels of pediatric asthma.

    “Restarting a shuttered oil refinery is a huge step backwards for cleaning up some of the worst polluted air in the nation. This project will only exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses that already plague Bakersfield residents and children at extraordinarily high rates,” said Gordon Nipp, vice chairman of the local Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is a plaintiff in the case.

    Kern County officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The county conducted what it described as a comprehensive environmental review before approving the project, and expressed confidence that the transports would be conducted safely.

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      CAL Energy Commission workshop: ‘wake up call’ on crude by rail

      Repost from The Contra Costa Times
      [Editor: Significant quote for Benicia and others along the Union Pacific rail line: “Union Pacific Railroad Spokeswoman Liisa Lawson Stark said the company is not transporting any Bakken crude into the state, but it is bringing in other types of oil.”  – RS]

      California trying to catch up to dangers of crude oil shipped on railroads

      By Doug Oakley, Oakland Tribune, 06/25/2014

      BERKELEY — California agencies have very little authority to regulate a massive increase in crude oil shipments by rail, and only now are they realizing the magnitude of the potentially explosive situation, according to state officials speaking Wednesday at a workshop sponsored by the California Energy Commission.

      “It’s a wake up call when you look at the projections,” said commission Chair Robert Weisenmiller. “We have to plan for the worst case.”

      Only in the last month, thanks to an order by the U.S. Department of Transportation, have railroads begun to disclose to the state Office of Emergency Services shipments of 1million gallons or more of highly flammable Bakken crude oil. Before that happened May 7, nobody knew anything about the shipments or where they were going, Weisenmiller said.

      The Valero Refinery is seen in Benicia, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. The Bay Area’s five refineries have moved toward acquiring controversial
      The Valero Refinery is seen in Benicia, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. The Bay Area’s five refineries have moved toward acquiring controversial Canadian tar sands crude through rail delivery. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

      Crude oil rail shipments have increased 506 percent in 2013 to 6.3 million barrels, according to a report by the state Interagency Rail Safety Working Group released June 10. That number could increase to 150 million barrels of oil in 2016, it said. Petroleum spills on railroads in California increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013, according to the Office of Emergency Services.

      In California, crude goes by rail to the cities of Richmond, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Carson, Long Beach and Vernon, according to the energy commission.

      The only thing state and local governments can do to try and prevent a catastrophic disaster is to enforce federal rules and prepare local first responders, officials said. The regulatory effort falls on the California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey.

      “I’m not enthusiastic about having tens of thousands of tank cars running around California because accidents are inevitable,” Peevey said at the workshop. “There’s been a huge increase in volume and we have to step up our awareness and activities, in cooperation with the federal government, but the feds have the ultimate responsibility.”

      The commission recently added seven rail safety inspectors who look at rail cars, railroad lines, bridges and shipping requirements, bringing the total to 59 inspectors statewide, which Peevey said was adequate for this year.

      Peevey dismissed criticism that the PUC has been too easy on industry it is supposed to regulate, and assured the public it is up to the task.

      “We’ve been pretty darn tough,” he said.

      Weisenmiller said the state first needs to identify the areas most at risk for crashes and make sure the tracks are maintained. He acknowledged there is no way to prevent shipments from coming into the state, but the state can “get its act together and reach out to communities near rail lines and provide first responders with information and technical expertise,” so they can respond to an accident.

      As the state tries to catch up and wrap its collective mind around the increased shipments, oil companies are attempting to add projects that would bring in more oil by rail.

      Valero Refining Co. is planning on 100 cars per day to its Benicia facility by the first quarter of 2015; West Pac Energy is planning 70 cars per day to a facility in Pittsburg; Phillips 66 is planning a crude-by-rail project in Santa Maria that could bring shipments through the Bay Area; Alon USA is planning 200 cars a day in Bakersfield and Plains All American is planning for 200 cars a day in Bakersfield, according to the Oil by Rail Safety in California report.

      Union Pacific Railroad Spokeswoman Liisa Lawson Stark said the company is not transporting any Bakken crude into the state, but it is bringing in other types of oil.

      But Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is bringing in nine full train loads of Bakken per month into California, said spokeswoman LaDonna DiCamillo. She did not know how many tank cars each train has or what the actual volume is.

      Lawson Stark said that even though railroads are now required to report shipments of the highly flammable Bakken crude oil to the Office of Emergency Services, the information most likely will not be available to the public. A spokesman for the office did not immediately return phone calls.

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