Tag Archives: Local Regulation

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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Earthjustice map: Crude-by-rail Across America

Repost from Earthjustice.org
[Editor: I’m reposting this map today – it was recently updated and still highly relevant.  Earthjustice’s map shows Major Crude-by-Rail Accidents since 2012 (Red Symbols) and communities opposing Crude-by-Rail (Green Symbols).  – RS]

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013, than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.

Since late 2012, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling created a glut of oil, the industry has scrambled to transport the fossil fuel from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets.

The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny. Oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials; trains carrying explosive crude are permitted to pass directly through cities—with tragic results. A train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people in the small community.

In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.

Legal Cases

Earthjustice represents groups across the country, fighting for protections from crude-by-rail:

FAQs: About Crude-By-Rail

Q. What are DOT-111s?

DOT-111s are rail cars designed to carry liquids, including crude oil, and have been in service in North America for several decades. They are prone to punctures, oil spills, fires and explosions and lack safety features required for shipping other poisonous and toxic liquids. As crude production in the United States has surged exponentially in recent years, these outdated rail cars have been used to transport the crude oil throughout the country.

The U.S. and Canadian government recognized decades ago that the DOT-111s were unsafe for carrying hazardous materials, finding that the chance of a “breach” (i.e., loss of contents, potentially leading to an explosion) is over 50% in some derailment scenarios.

U.S. and Canadian safety investigators have repeatedly found that DOT-111s are unsafe and recommended that they not be used for explosive or hazardous materials, including crude oil; however, the U.S. government’s proposal to phase out these rail cars fails to take sufficient or immediate action to protect the public.

Q. What is Bakken crude oil?

Bakken crude refers to oil from the Bakken shale formation which is primarily in North Dakota, where production has skyrocketed in recent years due to the availability of newer hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques. The increase in the nation’s output of crude oil in 2013, mostly attributable to Bakken production, was the largest in the nation’s history.

Bakken crude is highly flammable, much more so than some crude oils. Today, Bakken crude moves in “unit trains” of up to 120 rail cars, as long as a mile and a half, often made up of unsafe DOT-111s.

Q. Are there alternative tank cars available?

Transporting Bakken crude by rail is risky under the best of scenarios because of its flammability. But legacy DOT-111s represent the worst possible option. All new tank cars built since October 2011 have additional some safety features that reduce the risk of spilled oil by 75%. Even so, safety investigators, the Department of Transportation, and the railroad industry believe tank cars need to be made even safer. Some companies are already producing the next-generation rail cars that are 85% more crashworthy than the DOT 111s. Petitioners support the safest alternatives available, and expect that the ongoing rulemaking process will phase out all unsafe cars.

In the meantime, an emergency prohibition on shipping Bakken crude in DOT-111s—which virtually everyone acknowledges is unreasonably dangerous—is required immediately. (Read about the formal legal petition filed on July 15, 2014.)

Q. What steps have U.S. and Canadian governments taken?

The U.S. government recognizes that Bakken crude oil should not be shipped in DOT 111 tank cars due to the risks, but has done shockingly little to limit their use.

In May 2014, the DOT issued a safety alert recommending—but not requiring—shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets for shipments of Bakken crude and to avoid using DOT 111 cars. Canada, in contrast, responded to the Lac Mégantic disaster with more robust action. It required the immediate phase-out of some DOT-111s, a longer phase-out of the remainder, and the railroads imposed a surcharge on their use to ship crude oil in the meantime.

In the absence of similar standards in the U.S., the inevitable result will be that newer, safer cars will be used to ship crude in Canada—while the U.S. fleet will end up with the most dangerous tank cars.

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Pittsburg Defeats WesPac: Biggest California Crude Oil Project Stopped in its Tracks

Repost from ForestEthics, Ethan Buckner’s blog
[Editor:  Also check out ForestEthics’ blog post by Eddie Scher, “Bay Area activists celebrate WesPac withdrawal of oil terminal proposal.” – RS]

Pittsburg Defeats WesPac: Biggest California Crude Oil Project Stopped in its Tracks

By Ethan Buckner, Dec 11, 2015

In the final days of 2015 the victories for the climate justice movement are coming fast and furious — fracking bans to pipeline wins to breakthrough climate policies. This week, after years of a hard-fought community-led campaign, we learned that the oil services company WesPac has withdrawn their permit applications to build the biggest oil terminal on the West Coast in Pittsburg, CA!

That means 242,000 barrels a day of toxic and explosive extreme crude oil from the tar sands and the Bakken will stay in the ground, and off the tankers, oil trains, and pipelines WesPac would have built to bring this dangerous crude to Bay Area refineries.

This is an extraordinary victory, and one that demonstrates that grassroots organizing can overcome the power of big oil. I remember two years ago hearing that “no one can organize in this town,” because for so long Pittsburg had been dominated by heavy industry after heavy industry, from petrochemical plants and waste dumps to power stations and oil facilities.

The campaign started out small, led by two courageous neighbors Kalli Graham and Lyana Monterrey, who started knocking on doors and enrolling more and more community members to the fight. I remember my first day canvassing outside the Pittsburg seafood festival in August 2013, thinking to myself, how the hell are we ever going to win this thing?

But as these brilliant and resilient grassroots leaders kept organizing, and it started working. Within months our volunteer base jumped from a handful to dozens, and then to hundreds. Petition signatures jumped from dozens to hundreds to thousands. At nearly every door I knocked on I met another community member sick of Pittsburg’s reputation as an industrial wasteland, tired industry control. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where opposition to industry was so strong. When WesPac brought a company man to town to host a three hour informational meeting, community members showed up en masse and drove him out of town. Hundreds of citizens showed up at city council meetings, week in and week out. We hosted toxic tour, dozens of community meetings, and the biggest march Pittsburg has seen in many, many years. We turned the WesPac campaign into a regional and statewide issue, leveraging the power built in Pittsburg to inspire and support other campaigns fighting extreme oil infrastructure in the Bay Area and beyond.

In January 2014, WesPac agreed to take oil trains off the table. That was a big victory, but WesPac still wanted to build a crude oil tank farm, tanker berth, and pipelines, and we stood ready to continue the fight. But WesPac was not, and will officially pull their applications before a city council meeting on December 14.

Hats off to everyone who contributed to this extraordinary effort: especially the community leaders at the Pittsburg Defense Council and Pittsburg Ethics Council, and also Communities for a Better Environment, Sunflower Alliance, Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, Natural Resources Defense Council, and 350 Bay Area, among others. This victory belongs to our movement, but most of all to the tireless, resilient, creative, and courageous people of Pittsburg.

Let WesPac’s demise serve as a warning to Valero, Phillips 66, and other oil giants that are trying to build oil train terminals in California right now: our movement will not stop until all oil trains projects are halted in their tracks, and extreme oil stays in the ground where it belongs.

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