Tag Archives: Mosier OR

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.
Please share!

VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD: Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

By Matthew Adkins, 09/20/16, 9:54 PM PDT
Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall.

Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall. Matthew Adkins — Times-Herald

BENICIA >> Environmentalists hoping to defeat Benicia’s crude-by-rail project scored a huge victory Tuesday night, handing Valero Refining Company a significant defeat in the process.

In a unanimous decision from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Benicia City Council, Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility was denied.

Vicki Dennis, who moved to Benicia two years ago, was one of many present at City Hall and said she was “just delighted” with the decision.

“I’m so proud of this city,” Dennis said. “Our council people are very thoughtful. This process has been a long one, but I think they handled it in a wonderful way.”

The City of Benicia’s Planning Commission first began considering the issue in December 2012 when the refinery submitted an application seeking permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.

In March, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the application and to not certify an accompanying environmental impact report. The decision was made against the recommendation of city staff who said the project’s involvement with rail-related issues made the decision a federal issue.

Valero representatives submitted an appeal looking to reverse the commission’s decision to deny their application, and the matter was postponed until Sept. 20.

As part of the appeal, Valero sought a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board on the issue of federal preemption in regards to the project.

During this time, many governmental agencies, private organizations and individuals publicly opposed the city council’s decision to transfer authority on the matter to the federal government.

At the city council meeting Tuesday, however, public comment on the topic was officially closed.

“We are eager to hear from you about any item that is not on the agenda,” Patterson said. “I know it’s a little difficult right now. We have an item on the agenda that I know a lot of you are interested in, but there is no public comment on that tonight.”

This drew a few hushed laughs from the crowd of approximately 150 people who had shown up to witness the landmark decision at Benicia City Hall.

Mayor Patterson’s warning didn’t stop a few concerned citizens from indirectly talking about the issue.

“I originally put in my request to speak before I knew you were not accepting public comments about Valero,” said one man. “If the council decides to change their mind and re-open public comment on the issue, I would be glad to come back up and speak.”

“Since I can’t talk about what the Surface Transportation Board has just done, I would urge the council to support the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline,” said another man.

After public comment was closed, a brief recap of the project’s journey though Benicia’s civic system was put forth along with two resolution findings, one for approval and the other for denial,

The denial resolution highlighted specific issues that city council members had with Valero’s proposed project, including the unclear traffic impacts of having an unregulated shipment schedule, spill risks associated with shipping by rail and the project’s uncomfortable proximity to the city’s waterways.

Before making a judgement, Council members took turns voicing their concerns about health, safety and the project’s effect on the environment.

“When we first started considering this, there seemed to be little risk involved,” said Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “After four years, the community has endured numerous public hearings with hundreds of people speaking about the project. During this time, there have been 13 derailments around the country involving multiple carriers.

“The derailment in Oregon was a game-changer for me,” she continued. “Union Pacific was the same carrier and the railroad cars involved were the same ones Valero is offering. The strongest car didn’t withstand a puncture and crude oil came in contact with fire and burned for 13 hours. Union Pacific failed to maintain its track, resulting in its derailment. The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards regarding the transportation of crude. I’m going to vote to deny the project in hopes that the community can begin to heal after such a divided process.”

After the council’s comments, Councilmember Tom Campbell put forward a motion to deny, and was seconded by Patterson.

A quick vote was taken and the motion to deny Valero’s presence in Benicia was decided.

Misao Brown, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Alameda, was thrilled with the council’s decision and was seen embracing her friends outside of Benicia City Hall.

“If there were any spills where we are in Benicia, it would be in the Bay and go all over the place,” she said. “Benicia is concerned about the greater good and it’s just wonderful. It was really hard sticking it out for so long, but they gave every chance to Valero. In the end, we’re really talking about life on earth. So, when the decision comes through like this under tremendous pressure, I’m really grateful to every member of the planning commission and city council.”

Please share!

KQED: Oil train traffic is down by more than half — for market reasons

Repost from KQED Marketplace

Oil train traffic is down — for market reasons

By Jed Kim, August 24, 2016 | 11:12 AM

At its peak, in October 2014, trains leaving the Bakken region of North Dakota moved more than 29 million barrels. – FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Oil and its downstream products enable most transportation methods, from the gas in automobile tanks to the rubber in shoes. For oil itself, however, there are only a few methods of movement, and each is controversial. In the U.S., one method that saw a recent boom is now on the decline.

Shale oil pumped in recent years from the Bakken region in North Dakota ramped up production and availability faster than pipelines could be built. Trains filled in the gap in the meantime. At its peak, in October 2014, trains moved more than 29 million barrels.

The most recent data from the Energy Information Administration shows that the amount of oil shipped by rail has fallen dramatically since.

“Within the U.S., we’re moving about 12 million barrels in May, and that compares with last May – the intermovements within the U.S. was 26 million barrels,” said Arup Mallik, an industry economist at the Energy Information Administration.

Several factors have contributed to the more-than-half decline in shipments. One is that the price of U.S. oil has risen to more closely match global prices. That has reduced the amount of oil being purchased and shipped to refineries.

Low global oil prices, meanwhile, have stifled production, thus reducing the amount of oil needing to be moved.

While those factors have led to a temporary reduction in the need for crude-by-rail shipping, the completion of additional pipeline infrastructure around the country has made more of a permanent change.

“New pipelines are still getting built, further pushing down the need for crude-by-rail,” said Adam Bedard, CEO of ARB Midstream, a company that invests in pipelines and rail facilities.

Bedard said the biggest impact to crude-by-rail shipments may come later this year, if construction is completed on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would move oil east into Chicago.

“Those barrels will have to come from somewhere, and it is our view that a lot of those barrels will come from crude by rail,” Bedard said. “The Dakota Access Pipeline can move up to 450,000 barrels a day.”

In May, the total amount of oil moved by trains in the entire U.S. was 470,000 barrels a day.

The future of that pipeline is being decided. Protests have temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, partly because of concerns for the safety of drinking water.

Safety issues plague perception of crude-by-rail as well. In the past four years, there have been a dozen significant derailments of trains carrying crude oil in the U.S., spilling more than 1.5 million gallons, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said his organization is fighting to reduce or eliminate the traffic traveling through the Pacific Northwest. An oil train derailed in Mosier, Oregon, in June, spilling an undetermined amount of crude.

“We think oil trains are dangerous,” said VandenHeuvel. “We’ve seen explosions very close to our homes here on the Columbia River and have watched explosions and derailments all over the nation, and we think it’s not a safe way to transport oil.”

The overall decline of oil train traffic in the U.S. doesn’t extend to his region, as the network of pipelines on the West Coast is largely isolated from the rest of the country. Trains are necessary. Canada, as well, is expected to see an increase in crude-by-rail because it lacks comparable pipeline infrastructure.

VandenHeuvel said his organization will work to keep more terminals from being constructed that would bring in more rail traffic. He said he’s concerned more will come if oil prices rise again.

“You know, that number could ramp back up as production increases,” VandenHeuvel said.

Jed Kim
Jed Kim is a reporter for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk. He focuses on issues of climate change, conservation, energy and environmental justice.  Prior to joining Marketplace in April 2016, Jed was an environment reporter at KPCC public radio…
Please share!