Contra Costa residents pushing for more information on crude by rail
By Karina Ioffee, Bay Area News Group, 03/27/2015 05:22:01 PM PDT
CROCKETT — With plans in the works to transport crude oil by rail through Contra Costa County cities to a Central California refinery, local residents say they want assurances that state and federal agencies are doing everything they can to keep them safe.
Less than 1 percent of crude that California refineries received in 2014 came by rail, but the negative perception of transporting oil by train has grown sharply because of highly publicized accidents. A derailment in Quebec in 2013 killed 47 people and destroyed parts of a town; another in West Virginia contaminated local water sources and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
If the Phillips 66 plans are approved, an estimated five trains a week, each hauling 80 tank cars, could travel through Contra Costa cities, then Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose along the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, before arriving at the refinery in Santa Maria.
At a community meeting here Thursday, residents peppered a representative from the California Energy Commission about what kind of emergency plans were in place should a train derail and explode, what timelines the federal government had for new and improved tanker cars, and whether railroad companies have enough insurance in case of a catastrophic event.
Many came away unsatisfied with what they heard, saying they were terrified by the prospect of rail cars filled with Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is lighter and more combustible than most types of petroleum.
“The oil companies are getting all the benefits and the communities who live near them are taking all the risk,” said Nancy Rieser, who lives in Crockett and is a member of Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, a community organization.
Her group is pushing the railroad industry to release its risk-assessment information, required for insurance purposes, to better understand what kind of plans companies have in an event of an emergency and whether their insurance policies would cover a large incident. Railroad companies have so far declined to release the information.
“You need to have hospitals at the ready, you need to have first responders, so if you keep it a secret, it’s as if the plan didn’t exist,” Rieser said. “You can’t be coy with the communities.”
Regulations about rail safety are written and enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration, and the California Public Utilities Commission focuses on enforcement in the state, employing inspectors to make sure railroads comply with the law. There is also an alphabet soup of state agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR).
But to what extent the agencies are working together to prepare for crude-by-rail transports and how they’re sharing information remains unclear. Last year, an Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, put together by Gov. Jerry Brown, produced a report recommending that additional inspectors be hired to evaluate tracks, rail cars and bridges; more training for local emergency responders; and real-time shipment information to local firefighters when a train is passing through a community. According to the report, incidents statewide involving oil by rail increased from three in 2011 to 25 in 2013.
Many at Thursday’s meeting said the only way to prevent future accidents was to ban the transport of crude by rail completely, until all rail cars and tracks had been inspected.
“These trains are really scary because we live so close to them and we feel the effects deeply through emissions and air pollution,” said Aimee Durfee, a Martinez resident. Statewide, Californians use more than 40 million gallons of gasoline each day, according to the California Energy Commission.
Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said railroad companies are already shifting to new cars — outfitted with heat shields, thicker tank material and pressure-relief devices — although the process is gradual because of the sheer volume of the fleet, estimated at more than 25,000. New rulings specifying tanker car standards and timelines about phasing in updated technology are also expected this May.
“No human activity is completely risk-free,” Weinstein said, adding that the spill rate for trains transporting crude was roughly four times higher than accidents involving pipelines.
“Communities are resistant to crude by rail and they are against pipelines, but they also want to go to the pump and be able to fill up their car.”
Since summer 2014, the League of California Cities has been carefully monitoring transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail. Staff has researched this issue as part of an ongoing effort to educate our members, and to better advocate for improved rail safety.
To that end, the League has taken the following actions on this issue:
September 2014: Hosted a meeting on Oil by Rail, as part of the proceedings of the League’s Annual Conference in Los Angeles, to update members on recent state legislative and budgetary actions geared toward improving rail safety and improving first responder capability to address derailments involving hazardous materials
September 2014: Issued a Comment Letter to the Department of Transportation on the pending federal rulemaking on rail safety improvements. In that letter, the League called for improved information flow to, and improved training for, first responders, as well as requiring improved safety features for tank cars transporting crude oil, which had already been recommended by federal regulatory agencies.
October-November 2014: Held a series of educational webinars for League members (see links below). The goals of these webinars were to enhance members’ understanding of the transport of hazardous materials by rail generally, the extent of federal pre-emption of rail safety regulations, and the narrow remainder in which local governments are allowed to regulate. Finally, staff shared with League members the League’s draft policy for safety recommendations to help guide local advocacy efforts on this issue with federal agencies and the relevant federal representatives.
February 20, 2015: The League Board of Directors approved the draft Recommendations for Improved Rail Safety as the League’s official policy. These recommendations were based on common themes that arose in multiple state regulatory entities’ comment letters, including the Office of Emergency Services, the California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, and the California Public Utilities Commission.
March 6, 2015: League of California Cities Executive Director Chris McKenzie issued a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, submitting ten key recommendations for improving rail safety based on the League’s newly adopted policy, and requested expedited action on their implementation. The letter emphasized that the requested changes be implemented as mandates, rather than recommendations to the relevant industries, that they be accompanied by hard deadlines, and finally, that they be included in the final rule for the Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Flammable Materials currently under consideration by federal authorities.
Below are links to many of the items referred to above, as well as a sample letter for local jurisdictions to use in advocating to their federal elected officials and to Transportation Secretary Foxx.
Repost from Courthouse News [Editor: Significant quote: “They claim that the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is ‘riddled with flaws’ because instead of discussing mitigation measures to curb emissions, it assumed that the refinery’s emissions will be ‘reduced to zero’ by participating in the state’s cap-and-trade program, and thus concluded that ‘these emissions are not significant.'” – RS]
Greens Fight SoCal Tar Sands Oil Project
By Rebekah Kearn, October 13, 2014
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Kern County illegally approved expansion of a local refinery that will let it transport and process 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day, environmentalists claim in court.
The Association of Irritated Residents, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club sued the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department, on Oct. 9 in Superior Court.
Alon U.S.A. Energy, of Texas, and its subsidiary Paramount Petroleum Corp. are named as real parties in interest.
“The lawsuit challenges Kern County’s unlawful approval of a massive oil refinery and rail project that will further harm air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and subject residents in several states to the catastrophic risks of a derailment involving scores of tanker cars filled with explosive Bakken crude oil,” plaintiffs’ attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, with Earthjustice, told Courthouse News.
Bakken crude is from northern Montana and North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Much of it is extracted by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.
“The San Joaquin Valley is already overburdened by industrial pollution,” Forsyth said. “Kern County officials should put the health of their residents over the profits of oil companies.”
The groups claim the county’s approval of the Alon Bakersfield Refinery Crude Oil Flexibility Project and its allegedly inadequate environmental impact report violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
The project quintuples the Alon Bakersfield Refinery’s capacity to import crude oil, “from 40 tank cars per day to 200 tank cars per day, or up to 63.1 million barrels of crude per year,” the 27-page complaint states.
“This influx of cheap, mid-continent crudes, including Canadian tar sands crude and Bakken crude from North Dakota, would allow the shuttered refinery to reopen and run at full capacity, processing 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day,” according to the complaint.
“The project’s massive ramp-up in oil transport and processing poses alarming health and safety threats to the residents of Bakersfield and to those who live along the crude-by-rail route. Restarting the refinery will significantly increase harmful air pollution that will only exacerbate the poor air quality and respiratory illnesses that plague San Joaquin Valley communities already unfairly burdened with industrial pollution.”
Bakken crude oil is “highly volatile,” and shipping it across several states “over treacherous and poorly maintained mountain passages” without adequate safety regulations will expose everyone who lives along the shipping route to the risks of derailment, the environmentalists say.
Trains carrying Bakken crude have derailed and exploded, including the July 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, which killed 47 people and leveled half of downtown Lec-Mégantic, according to the complaint.
Bakersfield, pop. 464,000, between Los Angeles and Fresno, is the ninth-largest city in California. Kern County produces more oil than any other county in the state, and boasts the fourth largest agricultural output in the country.
Its air quality is abysmal. “Bakersfield has the country’s third most polluted air, according to the American Lung Association, and one in six children in the Valley will be diagnosed with asthma before age 18,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.
Kern County’s notoriously poor air quality causes approximately 1,500 premature deaths each year, and exposure to toxic air pollution racks up “$3 billion to $6 billion in health costs and lost productivity annually,” according to the complaint.
Several schools, residential neighborhoods and a hospital are only a few miles away from the Alon Bakersfield refinery. It is 1,000 feet from the Kern River Parkway, where people hike, walk, and ride bikes along trails and through parks, according to the complaint.
The refinery shut its doors in 2008 when its owner filed for bankruptcy. After sitting inactive for two years, it was bought by Alon in 2010 and “refashioned to convert intermediate vacuum gas oil into finished products,” but stopped all refining operations in December 2012 when the price of local feedstock rose, the complaint states.
In August 2012, Paramount submitted proposed modifications to the county that would let the refinery use the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line to bring in 5.5 million gallons of oil per day.
“The five-fold expansion of the terminal’s unloading capacity, from 40 tank cars per day to over 200 tank cars per day, is the largest crude-by-rail project in California, twice the size of the next largest project,” the complaint states.
The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the environmental impact report on Sept. 9 this year.
But the plaintiffs claim the environmental study “obfuscates and underestimates” the significant impacts posed by the project and ignores the effects that rail transport of Bakken crude will have on air pollution.
“The EIR severely underestimates the safety risks of this project through sloppy math and an incomplete analysis,” the complaint states. “Based on simple mathematical error, the EIR calculates the risk of a train accident involving an oil spill is unlikely to occur within the project’s 30-year lifetime. Correcting this error, however, results in a risk of accident involving an oil spill once every 30 years.”
California has a high risk for catastrophic accidents because many of its 5,000 to 7,000 railroad bridges are over 100 years old and are not routinely inspected by any state or federal agency, and the rail lines run through “hazard areas” such as earthquake faults and densely populated cities, the complaint states.
Kern County is especially vulnerable because “the freight rail track runs through the Tehachapi Mountain, an area identified by the California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group as a ‘high hazard area.’ The rail track includes steep grades, extreme track curvature, and a single track through the majority of the corridor. The elevation loss of this corridor is approximately 3,600 feet from Tehachapi to Bakersfield, and the grade is so steep that it includes the famous ‘Tehachapi loop’ where the railroad line must loop back under itself to make the grade,” the complaint adds.
The plaintiffs say the project also threatens to further pollute the air quality of a region “already plagued by the worst air quality in the nation.”
“Refining Bakken crude emits high levels of volatile organic compound emissions that lead to ozone pollution, which in turn causes respiratory illnesses such as asthma,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.
“The refining of tar sands crude, which is far dirtier than local crudes, will result in higher emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen, sulfur and toxic metals,” she added.
Moreover, restarting the refinery and processing 60 million barrels of fossil fuels a year will elevate greenhouse gas emissions in the region and interfere with California’s goal of reducing such emissions, the groups say.
They claim the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is “riddled with flaws” because instead of discussing mitigation measures to curb emissions, it assumed that the refinery’s emissions will be “reduced to zero” by participating in the state’s cap-and-trade program, and thus concluded that “these emissions are not significant.”
“The EIR also unlawfully underestimates greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring emissions from the combustion of end products produced from the imported crude,” the complaint states.
After Kern County released an initial study of the project in September 2013, the Air District commented that using 2007 as the baseline to analyze impacts to air quality was improper because the refinery had not refined crude since 2008, according to the complaint.
The groups say the draft environmental report released for public comment on May 22 this year did not correct this error.
“The draft EIR also omitted fundamental information necessary to evaluate the EIR’s conclusions, including underlying assumptions and calculations for the EIR’s emissions analysis, data concerning the properties of Bakken crude, and an objective description of the project’s crude slate,” the complaint states.
On June 13, the groups’ attorneys asked for the information not included in the draft report and an extension to the 45-day comment period, but the county denied both requests.
When the county issued its final EIR in August, the groups say, they objected to “new disclosures that the public had not had a chance to review,” including its flawed analysis of the probability of a train accident, and demanded that it be revised.
Several prominent environmental scientists submitted comments criticizing the report’s treatment of toxic air emissions and its failure to include “emergency flaring events” in emissions calculations, but the county ignored their input and approved the report 13 days after it was released, the complaint states.
Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner defended the project.
“The Kern County Board of Supervisors carefully and thoughtfully considered the EIR and all public comments and approved the report after a full and complete public process,” Goldner told Courthouse News.
“We will vigorously oppose this action.”
Paramount did not immediately return requests for comment.
The environmentalists seek declaratory judgment that Kern County violated CEQA by authorizing the refinery expansion project without performing adequate environmental analysis.
They ask that the project approvals and the environmental impact report be vacated until the defendants prepare a new environmental study that complies with CEQA.
They also want an injunction preventing the defendants from carrying out any part of the project until they fulfill all of the CEQA requirements.
They are represented by Earthjustice attorneys Elizabeth Forsyth and co-counsel Wendy Park of San Francisco.
Reposted from an email sent by the author, Dr. Paul W. Rea, PhD. This article has also appeared in The Daily Censored. [Editor – Highly recommended. This is a comprehensive summary on the issues surrounding crude by rail to date. – RS]
CAN’T YOU HEAR THE WHISTLE BLOWIN’?
The Dangers of Crude Oil By Rail in California and the Nation: Official Evasions and Possible Solutions
By Paul W. Rea, PhD
“Our regulators have got to figure out whether they’re working in the interest of the American people or the oil industry.”
—Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Illinois who shudders when he hears trains hauling crude oil through his Chicago-area town.
Just a year ago, 63 tank cars exploded and a firestorm engulfed Lac Mégantic, Quebec. In the middle of the night, highly volatile crude oil exploded into boiling balls of fire. With a radius of one kilometer, the blast and firestorm incinerated much of the town.
The remains of many among the 47 victims were never found. Today residues from crude oil and heavy metals have rendered areas Lac Mégantic uninhabitable.
Media Silence about Oil Trains
Mile-long freight trains are hardly quiet, but somehow a drastic increase in oil trains has, until very recently, gone largely unheard. Beyond a lack of media attention, the incremental, rather than sudden, increases in oil-train traffic have made them harder to notice. While some of us have been fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, we may not have noticed the surge coming down the track on a mega-pipeline on rails. In 2008, American railroads were running 9,000 tank cars; today the number has soared to 434,000 (https://www.aar.org/keyissues/Documents/Background-Papers/Crude%20oil%20by%20rail.pdf).
Nor are many Californians aware that, since 2007, their state has experienced a surge in crude-oil trains of 400%; and in 2013, the trains shot up at the highest rate yet. The number will likely spike still higher this year and next. These sharp increases mean that railroads and refineries are both expanding, subjecting the public to additional risks. In 2011, a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California belched out a huge cloud of toxic black smoke, sending 15,000 residents to the hospital (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Chevron-refinery-fire-a-close-call-3802470.php).
Even if no accident occurs, public health consequences follow the transport fossil fuels. These include increased air pollution (soot and particulate matter from diesel smoke and coal dust, toxic fumes from refineries). These pollutants affect public health—especially among lower-income people who cannot afford to live very far from railroads and refineries.
Fire Bombs on Rails
Increasingly, accidents are occurring. Twelve derailments have occurred in the past year—one a month.
Some have sparked huge explosions and fires, such as one that happened in Casselton, N.D. in December of 2013. First note the size of the towering fireball relative to the rail cars below; then imagine the conflagration that would have occurred if all of them had been tankers full of Bakken crude.
So it’s not a matter of if, but of when, where, and just how disastrous the debacles will be. Diane Bailey, Senior Scientist for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), warns that given the archaic regulations, high speeds, and aging infrastructure, accidents are just waiting to happen; “so far we’ve been lucky.”
While these trains commonly pull 100 tank cars and run a mile long, they can include 150 cars and run a mile and a half long (http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2014/community-leaders-advocates-call-on-secretary-of-transportation-to-ban-use-of-hazardous-rail-cars?utm_source=crm&utm_content=button). And these trains often carry highly flammable crude of the sort that caught fire in Lac Mégantic. Here in California, oil-train accidents have jumped from 3 in 2011 to 25 in 2013, even outpacing the steep increases in the number of trains. Nationally, train wrecks have increased 14 fold in the past five years, at an even faster rate than the increase in rail traffic (NPR “Weekend Edition” 7.6.14). The fact that mile-long trains carry nothing but crude oil increases the chances that if there is a derailment, a huge amount of liquid fuel suddenly becomes available, often feeding a chain conflagration
Nationally as well as locally, government officials have called for better preparation of first responders to fight crude-oil fires. This is hardy the solution to the problem, which surely lies with prevention. Fire Chief Greg Cleveland of La Crosse, Wisconsin indicates that despite upgrades, his firefighters have neither the advanced training nor the specialized equipment to lay foam on boiling balls of fire (NPR “Weekend Edition” 7.6.14). Moreover, they may not be able to reach a wrecked train quickly, if at all. Tragic experience with intensely hot forest fires surely suggests the inability of first responders to control huge fireballs pouring out toxic smoke.
Reacting to a rash of train wrecks—particularly to a derailment, a fire, and an oil spill into the James River in May 2014—the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a safety alert citing an “immanent hazard” to the public. This emergency order requires that shippers indicate to state and local officials the number of trains each week, their specific routes, and the contents of the tank cars. It also requires railroads to inform state emergency commissions about any large (one million gallons or more) shipments of oil.
Railroads have long resisted such calls from local officials and first responders to know the amount and contents of the cars; the Association of American Railroads said only that rail companies would “do all they can to comply with the DOT’s emergency order.” Not surprisingly, the railroads have done little to comply:
For many years the standard tank cars, known to the industry as DOT 111s,have proved prone to rupture when overloaded or involved in a wreck. Two thirds of the tank cars still in use today are older models that safety experts have found vulnerable to puncture. Nevertheless, the railroads still use them to transport increasing flammable “extreme” crude oil.
In Canada, the 111s built before 2011 are supposed to be phased out by 2017; in the US, however, the DOT is talking about a phase out but has set no date for taking “legacy cars” off the rails. Catering to the carriers and the owners, it has merely called for shippers to use the safest cars in their fleets and for outmoded cars to be replaced “to the extent reasonably practicable.” These recommendations are pathetically weak. They guarantee that the most flammable crude will be carried in the most dangerous tank cars (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/business/us-orders-railroads-to-disclose-oil-shipments.html?_r=0).
And are the newer models significantly safer? The Canadian Transportation Safety Board found that the post-2011 design, though an improvement, is still not safe enough for the transport of hazardous liquids like crude oil. Except for a few reinforced areas, the steel is still only a half inch thick.
One might suspect that federal regulators are “asleep at the switch,” but their own statements suggest something even more unsettling: Peter Geolz, former managing director at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency that investigates crashes, has remarked that the agency may be reluctant to phase out the older DOT-111s out of fear of slowing the U.S. energy boom (http://topics.bloomberg.com/national-transportation-safety-board). In other words, the feds figured “we wouldn’t want to over-regulate railroads; that might slow the biggest oil bonanza in history.”
California Regulators Also “Recommend” Action
While federal agencies largely control railroad traffic, clearly state government has an obligation to protect both the citizens of California and the state’s environment. Not until last winter did Gov. Jerry Brown finally convene an Interagency Rail Safety Working Group to deal with the oil-train juggernaut.
But rather than asking how much oil trains can haul without posing unacceptable risks to health and safety—and then finding ways to limit their length and number—the Working Group simply recommended safety measures for trains and sought to improve emergency responses. The Group’s report, “Oil by Rail Safety in California,” made many recommendations for improved safety procedures but mandated few changes in regulations (http://www.sfgate.com/file/830/830-SCAN6267.PDF).
Even if implemented, small measures such as more frequent track inspections only chip away at the monolith; they do not begin to deal with the big problems stemming from the great length, unprecedented number, and highly flammable contents of today’s crude-oil trains.
At best, these overdue safety recommendations seem utterly inadequate to handle current risks, let alone those involved with still more oil trains that are increasingly, as never before, running through populated areas.
On their way to Bay Area terminals, oil trains run right through cities such as Sacramento, where they endanger the 250,000 residents living near the tracks. How could this degree of risk escape the attention of the state legislators and regulators who work in downtown Sacramento? By the summer of 2014, the residents of Sacramento, Davis, Roseville, Pittsburg, and Benicia were becoming increasingly fearful of ever-more-frequent oil trains. Protests erupted in Sacramento and elsewhere along the line (http://www.sacbee.com/2014/07/08/6541363/crude-oil-train-protests-planned.html).
Oil Trains To Rumble Down East Bay Urban Corridor
Railroads and refineries are now planning to run crude oil trains along the highly urbanized east side of San Francisco Bay. A proposed upgrade to the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria, California (outside San Luis Obispo) would allow it to “crack” more Bakken crude arriving from North Dakota on trains passing through Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward, Fremont, and San Jose. The Oakland City Council passed a resolution opposing any additional trains running through that densely populated city (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/18/us-usa-crude-rail-oakland-idUSKBN0ET34620140618).
The Working Group’s Toothless Guidelines
Since the Rail Safety Working Group made recommendations, not regulations, it didn’t take the panel long to publish a report and hold a workshop. Both were intended to reassure the Californians (especially those living along the East Bay rail corridor) that state and local governments are preparing for the increased threats posed by the previous year’s spike in oil trains. The prevention of accidents received much less attention.
Held in Berkeley on June 22nd, a day-long California Energy Commission’s (CEC) Workshop was led by top state officials: Energy Commissioner Janea A. Scott, Chair Robert Weisenmiller, and Public Utilities Commission President Michael R. Peevey. Since this event required a full day from highly paid administrators, it cost taxpayers lots of money.
The Workshop was highly instructive not only about the dangers posed by oil trains but also about the attitudes of state and local officials toward them. The subscript was, “even though we’re not fully ready for accidents, we expect still more of these trains.” Moreover, presenters tended to assume that accidents were the only threat. Although arson, sabotage, terrorism, and especially earthquakes are always potential threats to infrastructure, officials made almost no mention of them.
Workshop Promotes Emergency Responses, Not Prevention of Emergencies
Throughout the day, mounting dangers to public health and safety—not to mention to the environment—were repeatedly underestimated. Speakers typically welcomed the energy boom and found few problems with the vast increase in oil trains since 2007.
Discussion did not include possible scenarios such as that of an overloaded oil train derailing on an old trestle and starting a forest fire far from first responders or polluting highly sensitive waterways. The state’s worst “high-hazard areas” are both along tracks traversing the Sierras (http://www.energy.ca.gov/2014_energypolicy).
Yet with increasing frequency, oil trains are traversing antiquated iron bridges such as the 1000-foot Clio Trestle spanning the Feather River Canyon. That one was built in 1909, 105 years ago.
Imagine a mile-long train of substandard tank cars groaning and clanking across an antique trestle over a river that provides a significant percentage of the drinking water needed by a drought-ridden state.
No Big Picture Is Presented
The CEC Workshop was much about normalizing the abnormal, about making mile-long trains carrying highly flammable crude seem not just acceptable, but even inevitable.
Rather than admit that the country is now awash in an oversupply of oil, both government and industry speakers left the impression that the crude coming into California would serve the needs of its residents and the region. Tom Umenhofer, Senior Environmental Advisor to the Western States Petroleum Association, asked the audience to believe that “crude by rail [is] needed to supply the Western US” (http://www.energy.ca.gov/2014_energypolicy).
Speakers failed to mention that the petroleum industry targeted these refineries because they are situated near deep-water ports—and that, once refined, much of the increasingly low-grade crude is already being exported to Japan, China, and India. The Chevron refinery in Richmond, the second largest in the state, is pushing to expand its capacity—but not for the production of California-grade gasoline, the demand for which has declined in recent years (San Francisco Chronicle 7.12.14).
America As a Colony, California as a Sacrifice Area
The stark reality is this: the oil industry is exposing the American people to health and safety hazards so it can profit by refining an oversupply of dirty crude for export. In an ironic reversal, the fossil fuel boom is making the USA into a colonial country, one that suffers the depletion of its resources and the degradation of its environment so it can export its fossil fuels. But “colonial” isn’t the right term, really; the country is not getting subdued or exploited by a colonial power—but by its own corporate giants and their lackeys in government. Ditto for Canada, which is supplying most of the crude coming to California. Odd as it sounds, both countries are plundering themselves and fueling climate chaos.
In doing so, they’re demanding that California bear the risks as they turn key coastal areas into a sacrifice zones. While most of the crude is just passing through on its way to Asia, for those who live along the way there’s no “just” about it.
Listening to state and corporate officials, one does not hear about the larger problems faced by the industry: fracking and acidification technologies have enabled it to tap the vast reserves of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the tar sands in Alberta, but with nowhere nearly enough pipelines to carry all this crude. Resistance to pipelines in Canada has put additional pressure on the only other alternative carrier, railroads.
Tank-car trains haul the oil to refineries, which are usually located near seaports; but the industry has encountered resistance to its search for additional ports up and down the West Coast through which it can export gas and oil. Climate change activist Bill McKibbon sees grassroots resistance as part of a global movement to halt the overconsumption of fossil fuels (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-fossil-fuel-resistance-20130411).
At least the Canadians, who are ravaging their north country to extract heavy crude from the tar sands, are up front about why they’re doing this: the conservative government led by Steven Harper and the corporations involved both want the profits from exports.
The Governor, the Legislature,and Big Money
The accepting, often endorsing tone of officialdom at the CEC Workshop fits with the Brown’s administration’s stance on energy production. Much as it has supported fracking, the technology making possible the glut of crude, the administration has also avoided policies that could restrict incoming tanker trains, slow “the energy boom,” or otherwise reduce exports and corporate profits. Only recently—and surely belatedly—did the administration clamp down on the injection of fracking waste into the state’s aquifers (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2014/07/19).
As we all know, it pays to “follow the money.” In 2012, Jerry Brown received $5,000,000 from Occidental Petroleum to help fund a favored referendum campaign. Brown has consistently supported hydraulic fracking, calling it “a fabulous opportunity,” one he had to balance against climate protection (Mark Hertsgaard, “How Green Is Brown?” The Nation July 7/14, 2014).
Sacramento is awash in both money and industry lobbyists pushing for more fossil fuels and less alternative energy. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, remains a major player, just as it is in other statehouses and governor’s mansions. Bankrolled by Koch Industries, Exxon, and Philip Morris, ALEC led successful attacks on clean energy in Ohio and Oklahoma—and now they’re promoting fossil fuels in other states, notably California (http://www.energyandpolicy.org/alec_s_attack_on_clean_energy).
It’s indisputable that Brown and other prominent Democrats are influenced by the vast profits made by fracking oil, shipping and refining it, and then exporting a significant amount from California’s ports, including Richmond and Long Beach. It’s also important to factor in that enviable wages are earned during an energy boom, and that labor unions also make large contributions to Democratic candidates.
Actions State Agencies Should Take
Even if the governor and the statehouse are compromised and unwilling to act, state agencies can get tough. They can require that any new rail-related projects—and there are many just in California—do not go forward until regulations are significantly strengthened, speed limits are lowered, upgrades are made to existing infrastructure, and dangerous tank cars are no longer used in California.
That said, Sacramento cannot solve all the problems; it’s the feds—the DOT and the NTSB—who hold most of the power to regulate railroads and apply the brakes on runaway trains. Getting them to serve the public may be difficult, however, as recent disclosures about the Canadian government reveal. Internal government memos show how the government of Prime Minister Harper is so fixated on getting oil to market cheaply that it has ignored safety warnings from its own experts. The Canadian feds are relying on risky trains since pipelines involve a public review process like the one that has stalled the Keystone XL project (http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/Blog/lac-megantic-one-year-later-what-has-been-don/blog/49833).
State and federal officials in both countries tend to assume that environmental damage can somehow be mitigated or remediated. Both seem to forget the catastrophic oil spills that occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 and the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Yet how could they forget Deepwater Horizon, the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico that surely challenged conventional ideas about restoring damaged ecosystems? Once large amounts of oil are released, it’s too late for remediation. Today, four years later, any Gulf shrimper can tell you that.
It’s high time to challenge the illusion of endless economic growth on a finite planet. Underlying the policies governing oil trains are the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and the denial, by government and industry alike, that this dependency can continue without destroying the ecosystems that support all life. The obsession with corporate profits is costing us far too much, and the costs can only rise.
At a time when the urgency for climate action is ascendant, when burning fossil fuels clearly exacerbates the earth’s problems, surely it’s irresponsible to focus on the most profitable methods to extract and transport gas and oil. With the survival of so many species now in question, wouldn’t it make sense to leave more oil in the ground and keep it off the rails?
Rather than accepting reality, gradually kicking the habit, and converting to more benign and sustainable energy sources, officials tend to grasp at short-term technological fixes to problems whose solution will require tough choices, clearer perception, and more enlightened values—including a reverence for life.
Paul W. Rea, PhD, is a researcher, author and activist in Newark, California.