Tag Archives: Oregon

COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE: Refinery Town decision may have huge ramifications for nation’s energy infrastructure

Repost from Courthouse News Service

Refinery Town Says No to Valero’s Oil-by-Rail Plan

By Matthew Renda, Friday, September 23, 2016 5:14 PM PT
Courthouse News Service
Courthouse News Service

BENICIA, Calif. (CN) — The City Council of a small city of 27,000 in California’s San Francisco Bay Area made a decision this week that may have huge ramifications for the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The five-person Benicia City Council voted unanimously to reject the Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project — a substantial setback for an oil and gas industry that operates several refineries nearby and setting an interesting precedent for local government’s assertion of jurisdiction over oil and gas routes.

The Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project would have allowed the oil company, which operates a large refinery in Benicia, to bring in crude oil by rail rather than exclusively by ship as the current arrangement dictates.

However, Benicia City Council ended a divisive community fight over the issue by finding the project is too dangerous for the community. The potential for contamination of the Sulphur Springs Creek and other watersheds in the event of a derailment proved too much for the council members to brook.

“I have seen stories piled on top of the other about what wasn’t working and what is particularly troubling is the lack of financial resources provided in the case of a catastrophic event,” Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said during deliberation on Wednesday night. “The money comes in too late, people have to go out of business and people have to move away.”

Leading up to the decision, several questions about whether the City Council even had jurisdiction hovered over the matter, with project proponents asserting that the federal government regulates rail and any decision made by the city government is preempted.

However, the Surface Transportation Board wrote the city on Wednesday before the meeting saying while the federal government does regulate interstate commerce and the railroad, the proposed $70 million rail depot was within the regulatory purview of the city.

While many local residents applauded the decision, environmental groups talked about its reverberations.

“This is a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects,” Ethan Buckner with the group Stand — formerly ForestEthics — said. “The federal government has said once and for all that there is nothing in federal law that prevents cities from denying these oil companies’ dangerous rail projects.”

In the series of meetings leading up to the decision, Valero touted its safety record and said the train project carried minimal risk and would bring jobs and economic activity to the region.

“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,” Valero said in a statement. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

Valero is the largest employer in the city, according to a recent comprehensive financial report compiled by the city’s finance team.

However, Patterson said the city’s general plan calls for a more diversified economy that relies heavily on small businesses, many of which would be hampered by the crude oil by rail project, particularly if something went wrong.

“We have to be less dependent on the refinery as we pivot into an era of attracting different kinds of businesses,” she said.

In 2014, trains transporting crude oil spilled about 57,000 gallons of the environmentally hazardous substance, more than any other year since the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track in 1975.

The Columbia River, one of America’s most scenic rivers as it carves out the border between Oregon and Washington state, was spoiled by 42,000 gallons of oil when a train derailed due to a defective bolt on the track.

While many celebrated the possibly precedent-setting decision undertaken by the small city body, Councilman Mark Hughes resigned himself to certain litigation and its associated expense.

“Regardless of the decision tonight, I believe a lawsuit will be filed,” Hughes said.

So whether Benicia’s decision will be the first in an onslaught of local entities attempting to regulate elements of the oil and gas industry out of their communities or whether that will be left to federal and state authorities may be a matter for the courts to decide.

There are five major refineries in the Bay Area including the Valero refinery in Benicia: Chevron in Richmond, Tesoro outside of Concord, Phillips 66 in Rodeo and Shell in Martinez also operate and contribute significantly to both the local economy and air pollution.

The five refineries process about 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day and along with other oil and gas companies generate about $4.3 billion in local tax revenue, according to a 2014 study performed by Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation and commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.

But Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Courthouse News recently that the refineries are responsible for anywhere from 4 to 41 percent of the pollutants in the area, depending on which pollutant is identified.

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California regulators restore emissions-cutting fuel rule

Repost from the Associated Press

California regulators restore emissions-cutting fuel rule

By Judy Lin, Sep. 25, 2015 5:49 PM EDT
Mary NIchols, Barbara Riordan
Mary Nichols, left, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, applauds after the board restored ambitious rules to cut transportation fuel emissions 10 percent within 5 years, during a hearing in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. By a 9-0 vote the board restored rules requiring a 10 percent cut in carbon emissions on fuels sold in the state by 2020, despite oil industry objections that it could drive up gas prices. At right is ARB board member Barbara Riordan. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California regulators on Friday restored ambitious rules to cut transportation fuel emissions 10 percent within 5 years, a decision that gives Gov. Jerry Brown a boost for his climate change agenda.

The rules further strengthen California’s toughest-in-the-nation carbon emissions standards, but oil producers warn the changes could drive up costs for consumers at the gas pump.

The changes are expected to add a few cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel in the state that already has some of the highest gas prices in the nation. The state estimates a typical commuter will pay an extra $20 to $24 in 2017, increasing to $52 to $56 in 2020.

“We are on a path to reduce our dependence on petroleum and this program is a key piece of that action,” Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said ahead of the vote.

Brown, a Democrat, has vowed to intensify his fight against climate change after the oil lobby helped kill a Democratic legislative proposal earlier this month to slash statewide petroleum use by half in 15 years. The board is the state’s top regulatory agency to enforce rules aimed at reducing air pollution.

Regulators voted 9-0 to re-adopt its low-carbon fuel standard, which requires producers to cut the carbon content of fuels 10 percent by 2020 to help the state meet its emission-reductions goals.

The program was initially adopted in 2009 but the reduction target has been frozen at 1 percent because of a court fight. Friday’s vote allows the state to resume its program; modifies rules in response to industry concerns about price spikes; and gives companies more credits for using renewable hydrogen and other investments to reduce pollutants.

Supporters say the program is worthwhile because it will encourage greater use of cleaner biofuels and electric vehicles, which can be cheaper to operate than those powered by gasoline or diesel.

“This puts it back on track,” Bill Magavern, policy director at Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental advocacy group, said after the vote. “We have other programs that address vehicle technologies and vehicle miles traveled, and this is the one that tells oil companies to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels.”

Oil producers counter that the rules are unworkable and too costly. They said the standard will impact consumers as the companies try to comply with the mandate or face being shut out of the market.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil companies, said the low carbon fuel standard jeopardizes the state’s energy future and adds uncertainty.

“California motorists need to know what is coming and how these regulations will impact transportation fuels,” Reheis-Boyd said in a statement.

Unlike other rules the state has adopted requiring cleaner-burning fuel or more fuel-efficient vehicles, the standard, first proposed in a 2007 executive order from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calls for counting all the pollution required to deliver gasoline, diesel or alternative fuels to in-state consumers — from drilling a new oil well or planting corn to delivering it to gas stations.

In addition to tailpipe emissions, it includes factors such as whether an ethanol factory uses coal or natural gas to power production or an oil rig uses diesel fuel to drill.

Regulators are targeting transportation fuels because California’s roughly 30 million vehicles account for about 40 percent of the state’s emissions — the largest source. The rest comes from generating electricity and industrial manufacturing, as well as commercial, residential and agricultural uses.

All fuels are measured against a baseline pollution standard. If a fuel falls above or below the baseline, it generates a credit or deficit that other producers can buy and sell to meet the target.

It’s up to fuel producers to figure out how to meet the goal, whether by changing production methods, using ethanol or electric vehicles for transportation or buying credits on the market.

After the rule’s initial adoption, out-of-state refiners and ethanol companies were among those who sued, arguing that transporting the fuels into California alone made them less competitive against in-state producers. They argued the law unconstitutionally limits interstate commerce.

The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 2013 appeals court decision upholding the fuel standard.

Opponents continue to challenge the state’s authority to regulate out-of-state production. Oil firms are also trying to block a similar standard enacted in Oregon, the only other state with a clean fuel standard.

Friday’s move to restore California’s program is not related to Volkswagen drawing international attention for violating separate federal and state rules that regulate emissions from vehicles.

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States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
 By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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