Tag Archives: Petroleum Coke (Petcoke)

NRDC Attorney: The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

Repost from NRDC Switchboard, Danielle Droitsch’s Blog

The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

Danielle Droitsch
Danielle Droitsch, senior attorney with NRDC, Canada Project Director, International Program.

By Danielle Droitsch, April 28, 2015

Many across the United States are aware of the tar sands threat posed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline but what many may not know is the U.S. faces a looming threat that is bigger than just this one pipeline. We call it a tar sands invasion. The plan would be to complete a network of pipelines (both new and expanded), supertankers and barges, and a fleet of explosive railway tank cars. What is at risk? San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and other places we all call home. While the threat of this invasion is already here with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the good news is that citizens across North America are rising up to respond and repeal the assault with a clear message: Not by pipeline, not by rail, not by tanker. The good news is that public opposition to tar sands oil is rising and projects like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have been delayed. The tar sands assault is not inevitable. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t need this dirty form of fuel and neither does Canada. The time has come to limit tar sands expansion in favor of a cleaner and brighter energy future.

Tar Sands Invasion Map 4-27-15.jpg

A new report released by NRDC reveals that the amount of tar sands crude moving into and through the North American West Coast could increase by more than 1.7 million barrels per day if industry proposals for pipelines, tankers and rail facilities move forward. For more information about this new information see posts by my colleagues Anthony Swift and Josh Axelrod. Why the west coast? With the majority of the world’s heavy oil refinery capacity, the United States including the west coast is a critical market for the tar sands industry. To be clear, Keystone XL still remains at the heart of the industry plan to expand tar sands and gain access to the global market. But industry is still pushing hard for other ways to expand especially as KXL flounders. It is important to keep in mind the tar sands industry – which currently produces about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) – plans to triple production to exceed 6 million bpd in the next fifteen years. The oil industry has made clear it needs all of its rail and pipeline proposals to achieve its massive production goals.

We know that the tar sands industry and Canadian government has long had a plan to quadruple or more tar sands extraction in Canada. KXL has always been a huge part of that. But it is now very clear that they also plan to access the U.S. and global market through every means possible.

This threatened invasion puts our communities, waters, air and climate in jeopardy. The Tar Sands Solutions Network has done an outstanding job outlining many of the different campaigns that are emerging across North America. This plan threatens to expose communities from California to New York to health, safety and environmental risks unless the public rallies to stop it. Here are some of the specific impacts that North America faces as a result of the tar sands invasion:

  • Across the West Coast, tar sands laden tanker and barge traffic could increase twenty-five fold, with a projected 2,000 vessels along the Pacific West Coast– including the Salish Sea and the Columbia River–shipping nearly two million barrels of tar sands crude every day.
  • A dozen proposed rail terminals would substantially increase tar sands by rail traffic going through densely populated American citizens like Los Angeles and Albany New York risking explosive derailments of hazardous crude unit trains
  • Nearly a million barrels of tar sands would be destined for California and Washington refineries, exposing fenceline communities in Anacortes, San Francisco and Los Angeles to increasing toxic air pollution.
  • In the Midwest, the pipeline company Enbridge is moving to nearly double the flow of tar sands moving through the Great Lakes region, an area that already has suffered from a 2010 spill of more than 800,000 gallons of the tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan sending hundreds of residents to the hospital. Four years later, the cleanup, which has cost more than $1 billion, is still unfinished.
  • On the East Coast, the tar sands industry is seeking to build the Energy East pipeline across Canada. The pipeline would run from Alberta east across Canada to New Brunswick and Quebec, carry 1.1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day and require hundreds of oil tankers traveling along the East Coast and Gulf Coast annually, through critical habitat of the extremely endangered Right Whale.
  • In Albany, New York, a proposed oil transfer facility could lead to the shipment of tar sands oil on barges down the Hudson River or rail cars along the river destined for facilities in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas.
  • In Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the constant threat of a proposed reversal of the aging Portland-Montreal Pipeline is likely to arise again as Enbridge completes work on a pipeline reversal that will connect the tar sands directly to Montreal this summer.
  • This network of pipelines will feed refineries that produce millions of tons of hazardous petroleum coke waste – known as “petcoke” – which are piling up in residential neighborhoods like Chicago.
  • In Canada, pipeline companies are trying to access the west and east costs with pipeline proposals that would ship the heavy tar sands oil across pristine landscapes in British Columbia or across the Prairies into Ontario and Quebec. Communities are raising concerns about the threat of a spill to waters from the pipeline or tankers leaving the Bay of Fundy of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • And last but not least, communities in Alberta at ground zero have been facing the enormous consequences of tar sands development which has brought about significant contamination of water, air, and land. Increasingly, there are calls for a moratorium on development.

Targeting at risk communities

The tar sands invasion puts a high toll on low-income and aboriginal communities located in railway corridors, near oil refineries, and next to petcoke waste sites. In refinery fence-line communities, emissions associated with tar sands are suspected to be even more detrimental to human health than existing harmful emissions from conventional crude. Derailments of tar sands unit trains – mile long trains carrying over a hundred tankers full of explosive tar sands crude – pose a catastrophic risk for communities throughout the country. And as more tar sands oil is refined in the United States, the public will also face increased health and environmental risks from massive piles of petroleum coke, a coal-like waste full of heavy metals that results from tar sands oil refining and can cause serious damage to the respiratory system.

Industry would like for you to believe that tar sands development is inevitable and there is nothing that can be done. Wherever they turn today they are being faced with public opposition. Expansion is not inevitable, especially because of this growing and formidable opposition.

A climate problem

It is clear that tar sands reserves – some of the world’s most carbon intensive – are at the top of the list of reserves that must remain in the ground. Mounting scientific and economic analysis shows that the tar sands industry’s proposed expansion plan is incompatible with global efforts to address climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that 75% or more of discovered fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground in order to limit warming to the international two degrees Celsius goal. The clear inconsistency between tar sands expansion and efforts to address climate change have made opposition to tar sands expansion projects a clear rallying point for a broad group of allies advocating for action on climate.

A water problem

A tar sands spill from train, pipeline, or tanker could devastate local economies, pristine wilderness, harm human health, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup. Tar sands spills have proven more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it difficult to contain or recover. A spill from shipping the tar sands crude could devastate communities, contaminate freshwater supplies or marine habitats and damaging local economies.

Undermining efforts to grow our clean energy economy

The growing exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands threatens to undermine North American efforts to build a clean energy economy and combat global climate change. Because most tar sands crude is destined for the United States, its expansion would create a greater dependence on the world’s dirtiest crude oil and undermine our transition to environmentally sustainable energy and a cleaner transportation fleet. Responding to the tar sands invasion will require solutions reduce fossil fuel use and spur low-carbon transportation and energy solutions such as broadened electric vehicle use and development of renewable and clean fuels.

This tar sands invasion can be stopped: Clean Transportation Solutions

The good news is this tar sands invasion can be stopped starting with leadership from government officials to embrace climate and sustainable transportation solutions. NRDC’s report for the west coast outlines detailed recommendations for decision-makers at all levels. The first step is for decision-makers at all levels to become familiar with the unique issues associated with tar sands oil and then to actively identify the full range of solutions to confront this problem. Without action, the U.S. will unintentionally become a thoroughfare for this oil undermining climate policies and presenting risks to communities and water. With support for regional clean energy policies, we can prevent the influx of tar sands crude and build the green infrastructure and public support necessary to begin transitioning to a clean energy economy.

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    Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

    Repost from teleSUR

    Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

    By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
    Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013.
    Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

    The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.

    Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.

    Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.

    Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.

    This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise.  But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.

    Buffett’s Bomb Trains

    The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.

    Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers).  Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.

    Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.

    Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.

    Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”

    A Contested Permit

    CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented

    In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”

    Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s.  Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.

    Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet

    In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists.  They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.

    “As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”

    One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.

    Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.

    RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”

    Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.
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      Diane Bailey: Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years

      Repost rom NRDC Switchboard, Diane Bailey’s Blog

      September 17, 2014

      Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years.

      Diane Bailey

      Actually, that’s kind of worrisome, especially considering that if you don’t experience that disaster yourself, your kids probably will.  This is one of the many absurd elements showing Valero’s cavalier attitude toward public safety in the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its proposed crude by rail project, for which public comments were due this week.  The hazard analysis in this report is also a serious underestimate, according to the State among many others: The California Public Utilities Commission notes the serious failure of Valero to address the “potential for tragic consequences of crude oil tank car ruptures” from its proposed Crude by Rail Project.

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      Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years

      This dangerous crude project is so riddled with problems that many communities up-rail are now voicing serious concern.  The City of Sacramento highlights the high concentration of people around the rail freight lines (“more than 147,000 City residents live within ½ mile”) serving the “Valero Benicia refinery [which] is one of two California refineries that are in the process of securing permits to build rail terminals to import Canadian tar sands and Bakken crude oils.” (emphasis added)  And the City of Davis suggests that the “highest levels of protection [be implemented] before disasters such as hazardous material releases and explosions occur [so that] we can avoid having such disasters in the first place.”

      Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community explain why the project is fatally flawed with 132 pages of concerns.  Valero’s crude by rail proposal is like so many other projects popping up all over the nation in a mad rush to access cheaper, extreme and dangerous crude oils, with little regard for public health or safety.  This project is a total disaster (based on NRDC, CBE and other comments) because it brings:

      • More Refinery Pollution: Bringing in extreme crudes like tar sands and fracked Bakken crude will only increase refinery pollution.  Valero’s Benicia refinery already releases 70 percent more toxic chemicals than the average for California.
      • Toxic Plumes Along Rail Lines: This thing called “crude shrinkage” happens during transport, where entrained gases escape, leading to a 0.5 to 3 percent loss of crude oil.  It’s a big problem for volatile crude oils like Bakken, and coupled with the high benzene levels found in some North American crudes (up to 7%), it creates a serious toxic plume around rail lines.  For instance, we estimate over 100 pounds per day of excess benzene emissions from the Valero proposal in the Bay Area (or 1800 times more than the draft EIR reports).
      • Extreme Crudes are Dangerous: Valero and other oil companies pretend that they can mix extreme crudes like tar sands and fracked Bakken into the ideal “Alaskan North Slope look-alike” crude, which sounds great, except that it doesn’t work that way in reality.  Both Bakken and tar sands carry their dangerous properties into any crude oil blend making it more volatile, toxic, and corrosive.
      • CBR Terminals at Refineries Amplify the Hazard: Valero proposes to site its crude by rail unloading facility within 150 feet of a number of very large refinery tanks that store highly flammable and potentially explosive material.  If a derailment occurred at the terminal, it could set off a chain reaction of fire and explosions at the refinery.  And there have been three derailments in Benicia outside the Valero refinery in the past year; luckily those trains were carrying petroleum coke, not crude oil.
      • Risk of Catastrophic Accidents All Along the Rail Route:  Valero’s “Barkan report” that estimates a release only every 111 years from the proposed 100 daily tank cars carrying crude is absurd for many reasons.  Most egregious is that it fails to consider recent data, like the six major crude oil train accidents over the past year that have resulted in massive fireballs and destruction, including 47 casualties in Lac Mégantic. The safety risks to tens of thousands of people living around these freight rail lines remains grave.

      The oil industry has been promoting “look-alike” crudes that attempt to mimic conventional crude by blending extreme bottom of the barrel crudes.  The mile-long trains laden with these extreme crudes are a Trojan horse that puts millions of Californians at risk and threatens to undo several decades of environmental progress.  We need a moratorium on all new crude by rail projects, including Valero-Benicia, until the state can assess the cumulative impacts of these projects, make sure environmental impacts are fully mitigated and assure communities that they will be safe.

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