Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country
By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
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.
Appeals Court Doesn’t Stop Crude Oil Rail Shipments Through Richmond
July 19, 2016 9:22 PM
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A state appeals court upheld dismissal of a lawsuit in which environmentalists sought to challenge crude oil rail shipments through Richmond.
A trial judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit was upheld in court Tuesday in San Francisco. The court said Communities for a Better Environment, known as CBE, and other groups missed a state law’s six-month deadline for challenging a lack of environmental review for the shipments.
A three-judge panel said the California Environmental Quality Act didn’t allow an exception to the deadline even though the groups said they couldn’t have discovered the project sooner.
“Ultimately, CBE’s arguments about the proper balance between the interests of public participation and of timely litigation are better directed to the Legislature, not this court,” Court of Appeal Justice Jim Humes wrote for the court.
The panel unanimously upheld a similar ruling in which San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch dismissed the lawsuit in 2014.
The crude oil is carried by the Texas-based Kinder Morgan energy company in railroad tanker cars from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation to Kinder Morgan’s Richmond terminal, where it is transferred to tanker trucks.
The shale oil is extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling.
The environmental groups contend that shale crude oil, which is lighter than other types of crude oil, is dangerous because it is more explosive in the event of a derailment. They also say fumes emitted during the oil transfers harm human health.
The groups sued the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in March 2014 after discovering that the agency had quietly issued a permit for the project in July 2013 without requiring an environmental impact report.
The permit allowed Kinder Morgan to change its previous ethanol facility to the crude oil facility.
In addition to CBE, the plaintiffs were the Natural Resources Defense Council, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Sierra Club. They were represented by the Earthjustice law firm.
They argued that a report should have been required under the CEQA law, while the air district and Kinder Morgan contended no report was needed because granting the permit was a ministerial rather than discretionary decision.
But the issue of whether there should have been an environmental report was never reached in court because Busch ruled, and the appeals court agreed, that the lawsuit was filed too late.
The appeals court said, “We acknowledge that if there were any situation in which it would be warranted to delay the triggering of a limitations period in the manner CBE urges, it would be one in which no public notice of the project was given and the project’s commencement was not readily apparent to the public.”
But the panel said that case law set by the California Supreme Court and other courts established that the Legislature made a “clear determination” that CEQA challenges must be filed within the deadline.
If you live in Contra Costa County, you may have heard of a massive effort called the Northern Waterfront Economic Development Initiative, which aims to re-industrialize the coastline along the Carquinez Strait. However, it’s more likely you might not have heard about it, since it has been operating mostly behind closed doors, with minimal input from local residents.
Community Meeting: Our Vision of the Northern Waterfront – Saturday, August 15, 2015 at 10:00am-1:00pm, Nick Rodriguez Community Center Theater, 213 F St, Antioch, California 94509 RSVP for lunch reservation.
Launched in 2013, this initiative is an economic development revitalization “framework” led by Supervisors Federal Glover and Mary Piepho, and targets the towns of Hercules, Martinez, Concord, Pittsburg, Antioch, and Oakley, as well as unincorporated Rodeo, Crockett, Port Costa, Mountain View, Vine Hill, Clyde and Bay Point.Contra Costa is already the second most industrialized county in California, behind Los Angeles. Despite this dubious status, the Northern Waterfront initiative is a 20 year plan to permanently transform our county and bring even more industry here. The plan has no targets for renewable energy growth, no caps on cumulative emissions and no goals for attracting sustainable businesses. When county staff were recently asked about the “green” industries they planned to develop, the only example they could give was carpet recycling while this is technically “green” for the consumer, it leaves the dirt and chemicals in our communities.The Northern Waterfront initiative has failed to include voices of residents living in the affected industrial areas, and has instead chosen to focus on institutional “stakeholders” like local government and business associations. Instead of working with the community, the Northern Waterfront initiative treats us as an obstacle to be dealt with. Their “Competitive Assessment of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” (9/30/13) admits as a “weakness” that Residential land uses are incompatible with the needs of industry. Citizens in the area may protest more industry because their presence generally increases deleterious effects on the community such as traffic, noise and air pollution.In addition to affecting human health and safety, the Northern Waterfront Initiative also puts our coastline, water and natural environment at risk. For example, the plan itself is focused on water intensive businesses! It includes a feasibility study to dredge the Carquinez Strait from Richmond to Stockton, from 35 feet to 38 feet. Funded by Contra Costa County, Western States Petroleum Association and the Port of Stockton, the dredging will allow oil barges to fill to capacity and bring even more oil into the Bay. Dredging has a number of hazards: it can increase salinity into the Delta (a shortsighted move during a drought), and it would release a century of buried toxins into our Bay.The Northern Waterfront initiative has projected various numbers of jobs created — one 20-year prediction was 5,000 jobs, another was 18,000 jobs. But what kind of jobs? And will workers want to live in an even more unhealthy and highly industrialized community? The Northern Waterfront initiative is not a plan to transition away from the old fossil fuel economy, but just more “business as usual,” despite the well-documented fact that the transition to renewable energy is an opportunity for job growth. Stanford engineer Mark Jacobson has established that if California transitioned to 100% renewable energy, it would create over 450,000 jobs statewide (Source: www.solutionsproject.org).Please join us at August 15th community meeting where a representative and consultant of the county will be presenting the Initiative, and county and local gov’t officials have been invited. More importantly, join us to share our vision beyond fossils fuels.
We need your support in letting people know about this event. To access event flyers and other media tools, you can use for a Facebook post, email blast or newsletter insert, please go to: http://bit.ly/NWMedia. We appreciate any efforts you can make to get the word out.For more information, please call 925-709-4295 or email firstname.lastname@example.org