Tag Archives: San Luis Obispo CA

U.S. Rep. Lois Capps: Oil-by-rail is too risky

Repost from the San Luis Obispo Tribune
[Editor:  See also the follow-up story covering the Cal Poly forum on Oct. 16: “Capps touts clean energy alternatives to Phillips 66 project at Cal Poly forum.”  – RS]

Phillip 66’s oil-by-rail plan is too risky

By Rep. Lois Capps, October 13, 2015
Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C.
Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C.

The Central Coast was thrust into the national spotlight in May as news broke of an oil pipeline rupture that allowed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean.

The ensuing damage devastated wildlife and our sensitive coastline, cost our local economy millions of dollars and put the health of Central Coast residents at risk. Sadly, this is just the most recent reminder of the hazards of drilling for and transporting fossil fuels.

In the months since the spill, I’ve redoubled my efforts to ensure federal agencies update and strengthen pipeline safety standards, prevent new offshore drilling and guarantee that our communities are properly compensated for their losses. And yet, just as the final traces of tar are cleaned from the rocks at Refugio Beach, another serious oil hazard looms on the Central Coast.

As many know, Phillips 66 has applied for a permit through San Luis Obispo County to construct a 1.3-mile rail spur to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. Construction of the new spur would allow the refinery to receive up to five deliveries of crude oil per week, with 2 million gallons aboard each mile-long freight train.

This rail spur proposal comes amidst booming North American oil production and a dramatic expansion across the country in the use of railroads to transport crude oil. Not surprisingly, the increased use of rail to transport oil over the last five years has correlated with a sharp increase in the number of derailments by oil-hauling trains. The increase in oil rail derailments is even more troubling considering the large investments made in recent years to improve rail safety.

The most devastating of these recent accidents occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in a downtown area and several cars exploded, killing 47 people and leveling half of the downtown area with a blast zone radius of more than half a mile.

Approving the Phillips 66 rail spur project would put communities throughout California at risk for a similar tragedy. If approved, communities within 1 mile of the rails would be within the potential blast radius of these crude oil freight trains as they make their way to their final destination in San Luis Obispo County. This is one of the many reasons why I am joining other community leaders, cities and counties throughout the state in opposing this project.

The Plains oil spill near Santa Barbara in May and the Phillips 66 rail spur project debate are both stark reminders of the dangers posed by our continued reliance upon oil and other fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.

We know that this dependence puts our environment, public health and economy at risk due to spills, derailments and the growing impacts of climate change.

With each extreme storm, severe wildfire and persistent drought, we’re reminded of the very real consequences of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

The truth is that an economy that continues to rely upon fossil fuels is not prepared to succeed in the 21st century.

That is why I have spent my career in Congress advocating for efforts to transition to clean, renewable energy sources that produce the energy we need while also minimizing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

I am proud to say that the Central Coast is leading this transition. With our cuttingedge research universities, two of the largest solar fields in the world and some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and energy companies in the country, I am excited to see what the future holds.

Now, more than ever, we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to pivot away from our reliance on dirty fossil fuels and toward a more sustainable energy future.

That is why I am convening a panel of industry leaders and academic experts for a public forum at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center on Friday to discuss how we can continue to expand our clean-energy economy on the Central Coast and across the country.

During the forum, I look forward to discussing the multitude of threats posed by our continued fossil fuel dependence, the progress made toward developing renewable energy sources, and how we can overcome the remaining barriers to fully transition to a cleanenergy future. Please join us this Friday at 1 p.m. as we come together to build a safer, cleaner energy economy suitable to meet the demands of the 21st century.

 

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    Mayor of San Luis Obispo: Safety is not a partisan issue

    Repost from The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, California

    Put politics aside and think safety first when it comes to oil trains

    Risks associated with increased oil train activity are too great; supervisors must act to protect our communities from disaster
    VIEWPOINT, By Jan Marx, July 17, 2015
    Jan Marx | Photo by Joe Johnston

    Like other residents of the city of San Luis Obispo, I am proud of our beautiful 165-year-old city, dubbed the “Happiest City in North America.” Residents may be happy about our city, but we are not happy about the risks proposed by the Phillips 66 rail spur expansion project.

    Why? As we’ve all seen on the news, when trains carrying this oil derail, they don’t just spill — they explode, and burn for days. Those derailments and resulting hazardous air and soil contamination have increased as oil-by-rail transport has increased. The Phillips 66 project would result in five or more additional trains a week bearing highly volatile crude from far away oil fields, traveling through our communities to Nipomo, each train approximately a mile in length. Residents, to put it mildly, do not want these oil trains traveling through our city.

    In response to concerned city residents , the San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously to write a letter to the county Board of Supervisors opposing this project and asking them to protect the safety, health and economic well-being of our city. The city of San Luis Obispo is honored to lead the way in our county and stand alongside a growing number of cities, counties and public agencies throughout the state, allied in opposition to this project.

    The increased risk posed by this project is a major statewide issue and is a threat to every community with a railroad running through it. However, this project poses a uniquely extreme risk to the city of San Luis Obispo, made even more extreme by our unique topography.

    Just to our north, in the open space immediately behind Cal Poly, is the mountainous Cuesta Grade area, which Union Pacific Railroad has rated as one of the state’s highest risk areas for derailments.

    This unspoiled and beautiful part of our greenbelt, full of sensitive species and habitat, with the railroad tracks and Highway 101 snaking through it, is also rated by Cal Fire as being at extreme risk for wildfire. The current extreme drought has created a tinder-dry situation, and when under Santa Ana-downdraft conditions, our city is often downwind from Cuesta Grade.

    Were there to be an oil car derailment in the Cuesta Grade or Cal Poly area, the campus — with its 20,000 students and 10,000 staff members — as well as the densely populated downtown and northern part of our city would be extremely difficult to defend from the ensuing oil fire.

    However, that is not the only area of our city that would be threatened, because the railroad tracks go right through the heart of our city, putting most of our residents, visitors, businesses and structures at risk.

    Our emergency responders are simply not funded, trained or equipped to deal with a disaster of the magnitude threatened by this project. If there were an oil disaster in our community, we taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for firefighting, hazardous material cleanup and repair of infrastructure. The damage to our lives, our environment and our economy would be devastating.

    Like all businesses, Union Pacific and Phillips 66 desire to increase profits for their shareholders. But the problem is that these businesses wish to do so by vastly increasing our community’s risk of exposure to an oil-train disaster. Are we going to be forced to bear that risk? Is there no way to protect ourselves?

    The answer to that question is up to the Board of Supervisors. As the permitting agency, the county Board of Supervisors is in a uniquely crucial position. It is the only entity in the county with the land use authority to deny the permits, which are needed for the project to proceed.

    County residents have the opportunity to urge the Board of Supervisors to reject this project. They should do so for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of everyone who lives or works within the “oil car blast zone,” approximately a half-mile on each side of the railroad tracks.

    The supervisors have the opportunity to put political differences aside and make the safety and wellbeing of their constituents their first priority by rejecting this project. Hopefully, they will rise to the challenge.

    Safety, after all, is not a partisan issue.

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      Crude oil train shipments dwindle in California, for now

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee

      Crude oil train shipments dwindle in California, for now

      By Tony Bizjak, 03/11/2015 9:47 PM
      A BNSF train carries Bakken crude oil in the hills outside the Feather River Canyon last June.
      A BNSF train carries Bakken crude oil in the hills outside the Feather River Canyon last June. Jake Miille / Special to The Bee

      A year ago, California officials nervously braced for an influx of milelong trains carrying volatile crude oil to refineries in the Valley and on the coast – trains similar to the one that exploded two years ago in Canada, killing 47 people.

      The trains never arrived. Although tank cars full of oil now roll daily through cities in the Midwest and East, provoking fears of crashes and fires, the number of oil trains entering California has remained surprisingly low, state safety regulators say, no more than a handful a month. In recent weeks, they appear to have dwindled to almost nothing.

      The reasons appear to be mainly economic.

      “Crude oil shipments from out of state have virtually stopped,” said Paul King, rail safety chief at the California Public Utilities Commission. “Our information is that no crude oil trains are expected for the rest of this month.”

      Most notably, the BNSF Railway recently stopped running a 100-car train of volatile oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota through the Feather River Canyon and midtown Sacramento to the Bay Area. The trains, several a month, carried an estimated 3 million gallons of fuel each.

      Bakken oil, a lighter type of crude, similar to gasoline, has gained a fearsome reputation since it entered the national scene a few years ago. A string of Bakken train explosions around the country prompted the federal government to issue a warning last year about the oil’s unusual volatility and launch efforts to write stiffer regulations on rail transport, including a proposal to require sturdier tank cars for oil.

      Two more Bakken train derailments and explosive fires recently in West Virginia and Illinois triggered a new round of complaints that the federal government is dragging its heels in finalizing those regulations.

      The BNSF train through Sacramento was believed to be the only train in California carrying 100 cars of Bakken oil. PUC rail safety deputy director King said his commission’s rail monitors have been told by owners of a Richmond oil transfer station in the Bay Area that refiners stopped the shipments in November as global oil prices dropped.

      California Energy Commission fuels specialist Gordon Schremp said lower prices for other types of oil have made Bakken marginally less marketable in California, although that could easily change in the future.

      Other projects, like a Valero Refining Co. plan to run two 50-car oil trains daily through Sacramento beginning this spring to its Benicia plant, have not yet gotten off the ground, in part because of political opposition. Under pressure from state officials, including Attorney General Kamala Harris, Benicia recently announced it is redoing part of its environmental and risk analysis of the Valero rail project. Valero has said it intends to ship lighter fuels, but has declined to say whether those will be Bakken.

      State safety officials said the slowdown provides a bit more time to provide hazardous-materials training for more firefighters, as well as to put together a state rail-bridge inspection program and to upgrade disaster and waterway spill preparedness. But state officials said they still feel like they’re playing catch-up as they prepare for existing and future potential rail hazards.

      “This apparent reprieve may seem helpful, but we still have substantial amounts of … hazardous materials traveling across California’s rail lines,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “It only takes one train to create a major disaster.”

      Oil prices have begun rising again, and state officials say they expect Bakken shipments to Richmond and potentially elsewhere to be back on track at some point. “We don’t have any concrete info about when it will resume,” the PUC’s King said. “When prices come up, it is likely to resume, and that could be in months.”

      Federal emergency rules require railroads to report to states when they run trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, and then again when that amount changes by 25 percent or more. BNSF sent the state Office of Emergency Services a brief notice on Wednesday acknowledging it had not shipped more than 1 million gallons of Bakken on any train in the last week. The notice does not say how long ago the shipments stopped or when they may resume.

      BNSF officials have contended in letters to the state that shipping information is proprietary and should be kept secret. A BNSF spokeswoman declined this week to discuss shipments with The Sacramento Bee, writing in an email, “Information regarding hazardous material shipments is only provided to emergency responders.”

      King of the PUC said his monitors estimate that eight or more non-Bakken crude oil trains had been entering the state monthly from Canadian and Colorado oil fields recently, headed to refineries or transfer stations. The Canadian oil, called tar sands, is not considered as explosive as Bakken, but two tar-sands trains derailed and exploded in recent weeks in Ontario, creating fires that lasted several days.

      The national concern about crude oil rail shipments follows a boom in domestic oil production, notably in North Dakota, where hydraulic-fracturing advances have freed up immense deposits of shale oil. Lacking pipeline access, North Dakota companies have turned to trains to ship the oil mainly to East and Gulf Coast refineries and to Washington state. Crude by rail shipments in the United States skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 436,000 in 2013, according to congressional data.

      California continues to produce a sizable amount of its own oil in Kern County and receives marine shipments from Alaska and foreign sources. Still, a recent state energy-needs analysis estimates the state could receive as much as 23 percent of its oil via train or barge from continental sources, including North Dakota, Canada, Texas and other Western states, in the coming years. That estimate is based on plans by refineries in Benicia, San Luis Obispo and Kern County to build rail facilities that can accommodate large crude transports.

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