The U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled new rules on transporting crude oil by rail Friday that set a timeline to get old-technology, easily punctured tank cars off U.S. and Canadian rail lines but fail to address the explosive nature of the Bakken crude that sparked the public’s concerns to begin with.
While the new rules are a step toward safer rail transport, it is a disappointing decision for the dozens of communities the oil trains roll through on the way to West Coast refineries. The new rules get the old DOT-111 cars off the rails over the next three years, and beef up the steel gauge required to construct the new CPC-1232 cars. But the Department of Transportation itself noted nearly a decade ago that the old cars punctured in minor, low-speed collisions. The new rules should have immediately banned them rather than phasing them out.
Most distressing is that the new rules do not set a standard for the volatility of what goes in the tank cars. Lower volatility would reduce the risk of explosions. Crude extracted from the Bakken Oil Shale is significantly more volatile than other types of petroleum — a fact the Department of Transportation has acknowledged and the public became aware of in July 2013 when a train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac Megantic, Ontario.
The new rules will do little to allay the worries of residents in Davis, Martinez and Pinole, where railroad tracks crisscross streets, or in Benicia, where Valero has applied for permission to retrofit its refinery to receive crude by rail in addition to crude by tanker ship. Valero has proposed moving the oil in the CPC-1232 cars, limiting oil trains to 50 cars rather than the more standard unit of 100 cars, and reducing train speeds in town. The City of Benicia is expected to release the draft environmental impact report on the project June 30.
Bills introduced in the House and the Senate this month would address these concerns, and more, notably requirements to notify first responders in real time when the trains are coming through. The new department rules require a railroads to provide a telephone number for first responders to call but do not require notification.
“These rules do not go far enough in addressing the safety concerns posed by trains transporting highly volatile crude oil through the heart of our communities,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “We need to put robust, comprehensive safety measures in place that will help make sure communities are safe, rail cars meet the strongest possible standards, and first responders are prepared in the event of an emergency. DOT’s rules do not sufficiently address these issues and so Congress should act to put safety measures in place.”
Action in Congress this month presaged the announcement of the new less-than-adequate Department of Transportation regulations.
Thompson’s bill, introduced April 15 and co-authored with Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and Ron Kind, D-Wis., would require volatility standards and weekly communications between first responders and railroad officials about crude oil trains.
In the Senate, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced legislation April 30 to protect communities from oil train accidents, focusing on communication with first responders.
Last year saw a record 144 rail accidents in the U.S., up from just one in 2009. The volume of oil cars, however, has increased by 4000 percent since 2008.
Rep. Thompson has it right: Congress needs to step in and demand better protections for communities on the rail lines.
Repost from Bloomberg Business News [Editor: A local resident observed that the photo below was taken at the docks here in Benicia, California — home of Valero Benicia Refinery. The Bloomberg story says that the contaminated oil originated with Chevron and was stored at Plains All American in Martinez. But maybe there’s more to the story? Maybe Valero was an additional source or storage facility for the ship’s contents? My source says that the tanker Hellespont Protector has been seen about twice over the last few months, and is a new one around here. (Background on current efforts of the oil industry to overturn the 1975 U.S. crude-export ban.) – RS]
Contaminated Oil That No One Wants Is Heading to Asia
By Lynn Doan and Dan Murtaugh, April 26, 2015 4:00 PM PDT
One million barrels of oil. Enough to fill more than 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And there it sat in tanks outside San Francisco — for three years — despite crude prices that topped $100 a barrel.
This isn’t the prized “light, sweet” kind of crude that is pumped out of the ground in Texas, or even the thick, sticky stuff from Alberta’s tar sands. Rather, it’s what’s known as “orphaned oil” that is so contaminated with organic chlorides that it can corrode the insides of even the biggest refineries.
Now, it’s on the move — and guessing exactly where is turning into a sort of parlor game for some in the oil market. All that is known is that Chevron Corp., which flushed the oil from a pipeline in September 2012 and has seen its value drop by $50 million since then, is loading it onto two tankers bound for Asia.
“It’s really kind of a bizarre incident,” said Gordon Schremp, a senior fuels specialist at the California Energy Commission who was notified by industry representatives of the planned exports.
It’s a rare shipment, considering most crude is barred from leaving U.S. borders. It just so happens that an exemption has been in place since 1992 allowing limited amounts of California oil to leave the country.
The only reason exports don’t happen very often is because California’s refiners keep almost all the state’s oil for themselves.
The saga began on Sept. 17, 2012, when Chevron told shippers that its pipeline delivering California crude to San Francisco-area refiners was contaminated. Chevron ended up pushing an estimated 1 million barrels through the pipe to get rid of the chlorides.
And so the tainted oil sat in tanks at a Plains All American Pipeline LP terminal in Martinez until this month, when all the red tape, including getting an export license from the Commerce Department, was finally cut, Schremp said.
When the contamination was discovered, heavy crude from California’s San Joaquin Valley cost $97 a barrel. It’s now $46. The difference, multiplied by 1 million barrels, is more than $50 million. And that’s not counting the cost of storing the oil for more than two years, which could add millions more.
West Texas Intermediate futures, the benchmark for U.S. crude, rose 9 cents to $57.24 a barrel at 11:53 a.m. local time on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices dropped about 44 percent in the past year.
Kent Robertson, a spokesman for Chevron, declined to comment on the exports. Brad Leone and Meredith Hartley, spokesmen for Plains, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Oil tanker Hellespont Protector, one of the two vessels chartered to carry the crude, was anchored in the San Francisco Bay on Friday, shipping data compiled by Bloomberg show. The other, Energy Champion, is headed for Qingdao, China, a place with no refineries. It may be a stopover, or it may not be headed to a refinery at all.
Schremp, who wasn’t told where the outcast barrels are headed, said they could be used as fuel for large ships or burned in a power plant.
If refiners know about the contamination ahead of time, they can blend in additives as a cure, but it’s an expensive solution that erodes the value of the crude, said David Hackett, president of energy consultant Stillwell Associates LLC in Irvine, California.
Wherever it lands, chances are it’ll be the first and last California oil that Asia sees for a while. California crude prices have been getting stronger and refiners across the Pacific have been flooded with supplies from much closer by.
Asked whether the rare cargoes are a bellwether for future exports of California oil, Schremp said, “It’s not like it makes perfect economic sense to move barrels that way into the world market — this was an export of circumstance.”
CONCORD — A mysterious earthquake fault slices under central Concord, its jagged, quarter-mile-wide seam running beneath a critical fuel-pumping facility, traversing the edge of a refinery processing 166,000 barrels of crude oil daily, and undercutting strip malls and homes.
While its big sisters, the San Andreas and Hayward fissures, grab the headlines, the Concord Fault — with its 11-mile-long fracture zone stretching from the Carquinez Strait to the Mount Diablo foothills — is also capable of producing a catastrophic earthquake, geologists say. And with critical infrastructure in its path, particularly refineries and a vulnerable railroad bridge not far away, a large seismic event could leave the entire northern half of the state without easy access to fuel — disrupting transportation and the transmission of electricity and water, according to a recent study.
The Concord fissure may be largely ignored by the general public. But not by geologists.
“The Concord Fault is significantly more active than the fault that caused the Napa earthquake,” said Chris Wills of the California Geological Survey, referring to the 6.0 wine country temblor last August that caused more than $400 million in damage. “Nobody would be surprised if a magnitude-6 earthquake happened on the Concord Fault tomorrow.”
Make no mistake, Concord’s contribution to the Bay Area’s geologic activity is significantly smaller than the San Andreas and Hayward zones. Updated U.S. Geological Survey estimates indicate a 3 to 4 percent probability of a magnitude-6.7 or higher earthquake over the next 30 years on the Concord or lower Green Valley Fault, a connected Solano County segment, compared with 6.4 percent for the San Andreas and 14.3 percent for the Hayward Fault.
The Concord Fault creeps a measly 4 to 5 millimeters annually, while the Hayward slips 9 millimeters and San Andreas 25 millimeters.
The last catastrophic temblor on the Contra Costa-Solano combo fault struck more than 400 years ago, but geologists still say it’s important to monitor.
“At some point in time that system has to fail — we just don’t know exactly when,” said David Schwartz with the USGS. Even if the Concord Fault only produces a 5.0 quake, it could cause significant damage, Schwartz said.
The great unknown
On Oct. 23, 1955, a 5.4 quake — the Concord Fault’s last major temblor — was felt from San Jose to Sacramento. It caused $1 million in damage ($8.7 million in today’s dollars) and one fatality, according to the USGS. Windows shattered, brick walls cracked and moved, chimneys shifted and wine bottles crashed from liquor store shelves.
What makes the Concord Fault particularly worrisome to regional planners, so much so that it was highlighted in a December study by the Association of Bay Area Governments, is its potential impact on regional and statewide fuel distribution. Without gasoline, every other crucial need, including water, electricity and transportation, will be affected.
In its report, ABAG studied three theoretical earthquakes — a 7.9 on the San Andreas, a 7.0 on the Hayward and 6.8 on the Concord.
“Originally, we were just going to explore the San Andreas and Hayward faults, but we realized that (there are) a lot of key infrastructure assets in (the Concord) region,” said study author Michael Germeraad, an ABAG resilience planner.
Five Bay Area refineries — all but two are within a couple miles of the fault — processed 235 million barrels of crude in 2012, about 40 percent of the state’s total, according to ABAG. In addition, Kinder Morgan operates a pumping station nearby that receives processed crude from all the refineries and pipes it out to terminals across Northern California and Nevada.
That pumping station, a critical piece of fuel infrastructure, lies directly above the Concord Fault.
Built in the 1950s, the station receives products from eight facilities and pumps the refined crude through pipelines. It can store about 1 million barrels, but normal inventory is half of that, said Melissa Ruiz, a Kinder Morgan spokeswoman. Its five outgoing pipelines serve Chico, Fresno, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton and surrounding cities, in addition to seven military facilities and public airports.
The company has facilities and pipelines in active fault areas throughout California but has never lost a pipeline or tank to a quake and maintains its infrastructure to industry rules and regulations, Ruiz said.
In its report, ABAG said it had concerns because pipelines can fail due to soil liquefaction — where hard soil loses strength during strong ground shaking — and fault rupture. Knowing pipeline material, age, weld types and other factors would help scientists know where failures are “more likely,” but that information isn’t available.
“Damage to the Concord station would interrupt fuel transmission across the northern half of the state,” the report concluded.
The study also found that if one Bay Area refinery was damaged, they would all likely suffer damage because of their close proximity to each other, and because they are built on similar soils and have similar construction.
“A conservative restoration estimate of damaged refineries is months,” the study found for the Concord quake scenario.
The Tesoro Golden Eagle facility in Martinez sits on 2,206 acres just feet from the fault. Built in 1903, Golden Eagle employs about 650 workers and is the fourth-largest refinery in California.
Spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche said refinery officials are aware it sits next to the fault and a liquefaction zone, but she said the facility follows industry design standards. Piles are driven down hundreds of feet into bedrock, equipment has been retrofitted and the Avon Wharf, an oil terminal located on aging timber piles along the southern shore of Suisun Bay, just received environmental clearance for retrofit up to state quake standards, she said.
Seismic assessments of Bay Area refineries are done every five years, and the building code requirements consider the level of possible ground shaking from any nearby fault, said Gayle Johnson, senior engineer with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a national engineering firm.
Johnson, who has investigated the performance of industrial facilities in more than 20 earthquakes worldwide, said since the refinery retrofit programs began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there has been a “ton of upgrade work done.”
While fuel infrastructure may be the top concern for the region, a large quake could disrupt other major lifelines. The Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, located between the two vehicle spans, is particularly vulnerable, according to ABAG, and could face “significant or complete damage.”
Liquefaction along the Carquinez Strait could cause dredged water channels to slough into the shipping pathways. Runways could rupture at Buchanan Field, which sits adjacent to the fault. Delta levees could breach, creating flooding and impacting drinking water quality, ABAG found.
Two-thirds of the power generated in the region is produced by natural gas facilities, many along the Carquinez Strait.
“In the event natural gas lines are damaged, these facilities will be unable to generate electricity,” the study found.
Still, Wills warns that what will happen during a significant quake on the Concord Fault is largely a mystery.
“How it releases is not that well known,” he said.
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.”