Tag Archives: Benicia City Council

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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Recent updates on the Benicia Independent

By Roger Straw, July 22, 2016

benindylogo08a(150px)In addition to RECENT POSTS (see at left), here are some recent updates and additions to the main pages here on the Benicia Independent …

    • BACKGROUND PAGE - Updates at bottom of page on Valero’s appeal of the Planning Commission’s unanimous denial, City Council hearings, a vote to delay until September 20, 2016, and documents related to the Surface Transportation Board
    • PROJECT DOCUMENTS: Valero appeal to the City Council and Petition To Surface Transportation Board, including A flood of STB filings at deadline on 7/8/16
    • PROJECT REVIEW: Public Comments 2016, including hearing transcripts and written comments
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Benicia Mayor: Public comment period closed – now what?

From an email by Benicia California Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
November 5, 2015

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Public Comment Period Closed on Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report for Valero Proposed Crude by Rail Project. 


What happens next?

Last week the extended Valero Crude by Rail Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) public comment period closed.  People are asking, “now what?”.

Following are some of the scenarios that could happen.  The list is in no way indicative of my thoughts or opinions and I have not asked for validation of any of the following scenarios by city staff.  But the list does represent some of the questions and scenarios being asked by the public.  I anticipate these kinds of questions will be raised at the Planning Commission hearing on the FEIR and project.  I take full responsibility for any errors and will correct such in future e-Alert update on Crude by Rail.

Scenarios:

1.  The staff and environmental consultants will estimate the work needed to respond to all the comments on both the original draft EIR and the RDEIR and advise the applicant.  If applicant agrees to proceed, the responses will be in the Final Environmental Impact Report  for consideration by the Planning Commission.

Or the applicant could appeal the staff decision.  I believe the appeal would be heard by the Planning Commission.  If they agreed with staff, the applicant could appeal to Council seeking relief from the staff and PC decision.  There would be no work done until the appeal is heard or the applicant agrees to fund the response document.  Read further for other permutations of further “delay”.

2.  If applicant agrees to proceed, the responses will be in the Final Environmental Impact Report  for consideration by the Planning Commission.

The public can comment at the Planning Commission FEIR hearing or in writing prior to the public hearing.  Generally, good practice is  staff (consultants) respond at the FEIR hearing which can be verbal or the item can be continued for written response though technically this is not like the draft EIR process.

Staff, consultants and outside attorney would prepare findings to be considered by the Planning Commission.  In the past for other projects the city sometimes has provided both possibilities for findings:  findings that the FEIR is adequate or findings that it is not.  The Planning Commission can find the FEIR adequate to decide on the project.  The Planning Commission could find that the FEIR is an adequate – though not a perfect assessment of the physical effects on the environment – and approve or deny the project.

The Planning Commission could find that the FEIR is not adequate for a decision to approve or deny.

Conventional wisdom is that either decision would be appealed.

3.  There can be an appeal at any step described above including decisions by staff and Planning Commission.  Appeals of staff go to the Planning Commission and their decision can be appealed to the City Council.  If any appeal moves forward, the City Council would have public hearing on any of the staff decisions and/or Planning Commission regarding the FEIR and the project.  The City Council could uphold the decisions of the staff and/or Planning Commission as in scenario #2 or not.

Depending on these actions and decisions there could be legal action.  Until legally decided, there would be no work done to advance the project process and staff time and effort would be to respond to legal action.

5.  Some experts and written opinions from the federal Surface Transportation Board and some legal opinions assert that if the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) causes undue delay in rail transportation, that the feds could act preemptively and “overrule” CEQA.  Others suggest that that does not apply to local land use permits.  Others may have more information on how this process would work.

6.  City Council could certify the FEIR and deny or approve the project.  Conventional wisdom is that there would be a lawsuit challenging the decision based on CEQA and local permitting process.  The city is indemnified by the agreement with the applicant, meaning the applicant pays for all legal defense.  Some lead agencies hire the defense attorneys and the applicant pays for the defense.  Other lead agencies have been known to let the applicant choose the attorneys and pay directly for the defense.  The city is the lead agency.

7.  The applicant chooses not to pay for the defense of the CEQA document and land use permit law suit.  City stops the processing and defense.  There is a time factor involved in CEQA lawsuits.

The best place to get accurate current information on the process is with staff.  To get started, click here.  Another source is the Benicia Independent which is editorially opposed to the Crude by Rail project and selective about letters but does provide links that are easier to access.  It is also a comprehensive source of current news.  There is no comparable site in favor of Crude by Rail.  Stay tune for developments in this area.

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