Category Archives: Benicia CA

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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    KQED covers rail and oil industry “show and tell” in Sacramento

    Repost from KQED Science, NPR

    Railroads, Big Oil Move to Ease Fears Over Crude Shipments

    By Daniel Potter, KQED Science | February 24, 2015
    This CPC-1232 tank car represents an upgrade over an older models criticized for being easily punctured, but critics say there's still much to be desired. (Daniel Potter/KQED)
    This CPC-1232 tank car represents an upgrade over an older models criticized for being easily punctured, but critics say there’s still much to be desired. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

    Facing growing apprehension among Californians, railroads and oil companies are trying to allay fears over the dangers of hauling crude oil into the state.

    Tensions have been heightened by a spate of derailments, as well as a recently unearthed government report with some sobering projections for the potential cost to life and property from such incidents in coming years. Federal regulators are weighing stricter rules governing everything from modernized braking systems to new speed limits.

    In a rare move Tuesday in Sacramento, officials with California’s two major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, held a media briefing explaining safety measures ranging from computerized stability controls to special foam for choking out fires.

    At the California State Railroad Museum, Pat Brady, a hazardous materials manager for BNSF, showed off a newer model tank car with half-inch thick “head shields” – metal plates extending halfway up on either end.  The car was also equipped with “skid protection,” Brady said, pointing to a nozzle underneath that’s designed to break away in a derailment, leaving the valve itself intact, to avert spills.

    This tank car, the CPC-1232, is supposed to be safer and harder to puncture than the older DOT-111 version, but it’s facing skepticism after several exploded last week when a train hauling North Dakota crude through West Virginia derailed.

    Using a simulator, Union Pacific's William Boyd demonstrates technology making sure train operators don't go too fast or end up on the wrong track. (Daniel Potter/KQED)

    Industry officials at the Sacramento briefing were reluctant to comment about that incident, saying not all the facts are in yet, but several emphasized the importance of keeping trains from derailing to begin with, and claiming that more than 99.99 percent of such shipments arrive safely.

    Both BNSF and Union Pacific said tracks used to haul crude through California undergo daily visual inspections, said Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, as well as a battery of high-tech tests.

    “We’re using lasers to measure track gauge and track profile to keep trains on tracks,” he said, and also “pushing ultrasonic waves into our rail to detect potential cracks early.”

    Hunt says in a typical month, Union Pacific brings in 1,000 to 1,200 cars loaded with oil, a tiny fraction of the company’s in-state freight. BNSF said its oil haul is even less: about two trains a month. But some predict such shipments could soar in the near future.

    Also represented at the briefing was Valero Energy, which is hoping to start bringing two fifty-car oil trains a day to its refinery in Benicia.

    “Valero as a company has acquired over five thousand rail cars,” said Chris Howe, a health and safety manager at Valero’s Benicia facility. “We’re able to get a number of them committed to our project, so we will likely be using Valero cars of these newer designs.”

    The industry’s shift away from the DOT-111 model is “a useful step,” says Patti Goldman, managing attorney with Earthjustice, who adds that the newer cars are still “not nearly safe enough.”

    “What you need to do to prevent catastrophes when trains do leave the tracks is have far better tank cars to be able to prevent the leaks and explosions in the first place,” says Goldman.

    Earthjustice is in a legal fight pushing for stronger oversight and regulation. Goldman charges that it’s taking a long time to fully phase out older models because the industry is more focused on growing fleets rapidly.

    “That’s just inexcusable,” she says. “We don’t think they’re allowed to do that. We think they need to get these hazardous tank cars off the rails before they start increasing the amount of crude oil that’s going to be shipped on the rails.”

     

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      San Luis Obispo Tribune: Benicia to recirculate Valero DEIR

      Repost from the San Luis Obispo Tribune
      [Editor: Nice to know that the folks in San Luis Obispo (home of Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery) are keeping an eye on Benicia….  – RS]

      California city plans more study of crude-oil rail shipments

      The Associated PressFebruary 4, 2015

      BENICIA, Calif. — The city of Benicia is planning further review of a refinery’s plan to move as many as 100 train cars of flammable crude oil daily through Northern California communities.The Sacramento Bee reports (http://bit.ly/1LLESFw ) Benicia officials said Tuesday that they have decided to redo some sections of an environmental impact analysis of the project. The city plans to release a rewritten report June 30 for public review.

      The decision comes after numerous groups, including Attorney General Kamala Harris, called the city’s review of the project inadequate.

      The Valero Refining Company in Benicia plans to have trains travel on the Union Pacific line that runs through downtown West Sacramento and Davis, along the same tracks that carry Capitol Corridor passenger trains between Sacramento and the Bay Area.

      Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com
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        Valero Crude by Rail ranked #1 news story in Benicia for 2014

        By Roger Straw, January 30, 2015

        The Benicia Herald published a separate section today, “The Year 2014 In Review.”  Counting down dramatically from #14, the #1 story of the year was “Opponents, supporters of Crude-by-Rail Plan square off as city leaders mull decision.”  Subtitle: “For second straight year, Valero Refinery’s permit request dominates Benicia news.”

        Editor Marc Ethier will not be publishing the special section online.  When asked, he indicated it would only be for print subscribers.

        The article bends over backwards to present a balanced view of the controversy, giving Valero’s perspective and naming our local organized opposition, Benicians For a Safe and Healthy Community and other groups and government entities that were critical of the project and/or it’s environmental review.

        It’s appropriate that our local paper recognized the controversy as the City’s #1 story last year.  Benicia finds itself in the crosshairs of a growing nationwide debate, and Valero’s dangerous and toxic proposal would, if approved, affect communities all up and down the rails.

        The Benicia Herald’s #6 story of 2014 was “Mayor, city attorney in free speech flap.”  For more on this, see our Local Media page.

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