Category Archives: Massive increase in crude-by-rail

KQED: California’s Not Ready for Influx of Oil Trains, Says Report

Repost from KQED Science, NPR/PBS

California’s Not Ready for Influx of Oil Trains, Says Report

Molly Samuel, KQED Science | June 12, 2014

Trains carrying oil can pose serious risks to public safety and the environment, and California isn’t prepared, according to a report released by state agencies this week.

Crude-by-rail is a growing concern, as an oil boom in North Dakota has meant increasing amounts of crude traveling to refineries by rail. A series of fiery derailments in the past year, including one that killed 47 people in a Quebec town, has focused attention on the need to prevent accidents and be prepared for emergency response.

‘Even though we haven’t had an accident, which is great, we want to be able to respond to it when there is an accident.’– Kelly Huston, Office of Emergency Services

The report warns that a derailment in California could kill people, destroy neighborhoods, damage water supplies and threaten natural areas.

“Even though we haven’t had an accident, which is great, we want to be able to respond to it when there is an accident,” said Kelly Huston, a deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). “With the increase in the amount of crude oil on rail coming through California’s cities and counties, we believe there should be some increased training for first responders.”

The report was released by an inter-agency group that includes the OES, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), among others. It recommends boosting funding for emergency responder training, and for equipment to handle hazardous material accidents. It also supports an item in Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget that would provide more money to the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, which has focused on marine oil spills in the past, but is now preparing for the possibility of inland spills.

It’s not all about accident response; there are also recommendations for prevention. Most rail regulation is up to the federal government; the CPUC helps enforce safety rules with its own rail inspectors. There are 52 of them, responsible for monitoring more than 5,400 miles of track in the state. “This staffing level is seriously inadequate,” the report says.

Paul King, deputy director for the rail safety at the CPUC, said the Governor’s budget aims to help. “To meet the volume of trains and the magnitude of the risk that [crude-by-rail] presents,” King said, “the Governor has put in his budget for extra staffing.”

There are other gaps the state cannot fill alone. As the CPUC pointed out in a report released last year, there is only one federal railroad bridge inspector for 11 Western states.

The report also raised the need for more information. As of last weekend, railroads that are transporting large shipments of Bakken, the volatile crude oil from North Dakota, must notify states. Huston of the OES said he got the first batch of documents Monday, but he said they’re of limited use and not timely enough. He said the OES is following up with BNSF and the federal Department of Transportation, the agency that issued the notification order.

Huston said he’d also like to see a map that the public could access, showing where the oil train shipments are headed. The railroads are resisting releasing information about crude shipments to the public.

Most of California’s oil comes either from within the state or overseas, and travels to refineries here by pipeline or ship. And that’s still the case. According the the California Energy Commission, only about one percent of California’s crude came by train in 2013. But trains carrying oil are becoming more frequent, and the CEC projects that by 2016, trains could be bringing in about 23 percent of California’s crude.


    California legislators offering bills to prevent oil by rail accidents – Union Pacific & BNSF react

    Repost from The Los Angeles Times, via The Columbian

    California moves to prevent spills of oil shipped by trains

    By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2014

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Although most people think of oil spills in California as potential beachfront disasters, there is new anxiety in Sacramento about the surge of crude oil now coming through the state each day by train.

    Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers want to avoid the sort of fiery disaster that killed 47 people in July in southern Quebec when tank cars exploded as they carried oil from the booming Bakken oil fields of North Dakota through Canada. Other less spectacular oil tanker car derailments occurred in Aliceville, Ala.; Casselton, N.D.; and Lynchburg, Va., during the past 12 months.

    With a steady increase of oil now being shipped into California from out of state, policymakers are scrambling to come up with spill-prevention programs to lower the risk of potentially deadly accidents. Proposals under consideration include hiring new state railroad inspectors, developing better spill-response plans and improving communications between rail carriers and emergency services agencies.

    “California is seeing a huge shift in the way we import oil,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, one of two lawmakers pushing oil-by-rail safety bills this session in the Legislature. “We need to address the new and unique hazards of crude-by-rail transportation.”

    The threat to California communities is particularly dire, environmental justice groups contend, because many of the state’s busiest rail lines run through densely populated areas, and refineries often are in low-income neighborhoods, such as Wilmington in southern Los Angeles County and Richmond in Northern California’s Contra Costa County.

    Railroads question the need for new state regulations that could conflict with the federal government’s historic oversight of all aspects of rail safety, operations and working conditions. Rail companies say they have “a 99.997 percent safe delivery record of hazardous materials” and they are eager to cooperate with state officials to ensure even safer operations.

    Oil imports by rail account for just about 1 percent of total shipments to California refineries. Most of the crude arrives by ship or by pipelines from in-state production fields.

    But that mix is changing fast. Last year, railroads brought 6.3 million barrels of crude into the Golden State, mostly from North Dakota and Canada, according to the California Energy Commission. That’s up from 1.1 million barrels in 2012 and just 498,000 in 2010. A barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil.

    Shipments to Southern California accounted for most of last year’s almost sixfold jump in crude-by-rail activity, the commission reported. Tank-car transportation, it estimates, could reach about a quarter of all state imports in 2016 if the trend continues.

    Volume went “from nothing to massive, a huge expansion,” said Julia May, a senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, a Huntington Park group that advocates for low-income people living near pollution sources. “It’s a major concern.”

    Three proposals for protecting the state against rail-related oil spills are under consideration.

    As part of his annual budget, Brown wants to expand an existing prevention-and-response program for ocean oil spills to cover inland areas. The initiative would be funded by a proposed 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee on all crude oil delivered by rail to refineries. Additionally, Brown is asking lawmakers to approve hiring new track inspectors.

    Separately, Pavley last week steered a similar spill-response measure, SB 1319, through the state Senate, winning approval on a 23-11 vote.

    In the lower house, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, recently amended a bill that would require railroads to report to the state Office of Emergency Services information about hazardous materials, including crude oil, being transported into the state.

    His proposal, AB 380, which was unanimously approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Wednesday, also would require rail carriers to maintain live, 24-hour communications lines that would enable local first-responders to contact them.

    “We want to make sure that in California we get the information we need,” Dickinson said.

    Meanwhile, the federal government, which is ultimately responsible for railroad safety regulation, recently issued an emergency order to railroads to notify states of the specific routes they will use when transporting more than 1 million barrels of Bakken crude. Such oil “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude,” the U.S. Department of Transportation warned.

    “The number and type of petroleum crude oil railroad accidents … that have occurred during the last year is startling,” the department said in its May 7 order, referring to recent accidents in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia.

    The Brown administration plans and the Pavley legislation are opposed by the two principal railroads that haul crude oil to California: Union Pacific and BNSF.

    “The railroads understand the questions and concerns that California has regarding crude oil shipped into the state by rail,” the two companies said in a May 22 letter to Pavley.

    They also warned that the proposed California rules may be unworkable, preempted by existing federal laws and harmful to national security concerns.

    Union Pacific and BNSF also cautioned policymakers to be skeptical of official projections of an extremely rapid increase of crude shipments to California.

    The oil industry in a May 28 “alert” to state senators called the Pavley bill “excessive” and “not narrowly focused on areas where there may be a real risk from potential oil spills by rail.”

    The prospect of more and bigger accidents is real if immediate changes are not made, warned Jayni Foley Hein, executive director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.

    “The danger is not so much the oil itself as a commodity,” Hein said, “but the sheer number of cars carrying this oil . combined with aging infrastructure.”


      Vermont: catastrophic risk to Lake Champlain

      Repost from Lake Look, a publication of Lake Champlain Committee
      [Editor: An excellent and thorough look at crude oil train derailment risks in and around Lake Champlain.  – RS]

      Rail transport of oil poses risk to Lake Champlain

      By Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow   |  April, 2014
      An oil train rolls south along the shores of Lake Champlain. Photo by Frank Jolin

      The sound of trains clacking along the rails that abut Lake Champlain has become more common recently with the dramatic increase in freight traffic attributed to fossil fuel extraction. Each week approximately 60 million gallons of oil travel along the lake carried by 20 trains with up to 100 cars each. The U.S. now meets 66 percent of its crude oil demand from production in North America with tremendous growth in outputs from Canada and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. In October 2013 U.S. crude oil production exceeded imports for the first time since February 1995.

      Oil produced from the Bakken fields is very light. That means it flows easily, but it also means it is more volatile and flammable. As a result, the potential property damage and loss of life associated with rail accidents involving Bakken oil is higher than oil from other sources. In January of this year two federal agencies issued a safety alert warning of these risks.

      The alert was triggered by a series of devastating accidents. The Federal Railroad Administration statistics suggest that on average at least one car slips off the tracks every day. There have been six major derailments between the beginning of 2013 and mid-January 2014. The most infamous occurred on July 5, 2013, in Lac Megantic, Quebec. An improperly secured train began rolling on its own, and 63 cars derailed near the center of town. Derailment led to multiple explosions and fires, evacuation of 2,000 people, and 47 fatalities. On Oct. 19, 2013, 13 tank cars derailed in Alberta leading to evacuation of 100 residents. Three cars carrying propane burned following an explosion. On Nov. 8, 2013, 30 cars derailed in a wetland near Aliceville, Ala., and about a dozen were decimated by fire. On Dec. 30, 2013, two trains, one carrying grain and one oil, collided in Casselton, N.D. Twenty of the oil train cars derailed and exploded leading to evacuation of 1,400 people. On Jan. 7, 2014, 17 cars derailed in New Brunswick and five exploded leading to evacuation of 45 people. On Jan. 20, 2014, seven cars derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, though no oil leaked. More recently, 15-17 cars derailed in Lynchburg, Va., on April 30. Three fell into the James River and one burst into flames. There were no injuries but 300-350 people had to be evacuated and oil leaked into the James River. The state estimated 20,000 to 25,000 gallons escaped during the wreck.

      Our region is no stranger to train derailments. In 2007, a northbound Vermont Railways freight train derailed in Middlebury spilling gasoline into Otter Creek and leading to the evacuation of 30 streets in the vicinity. Trains have also derailed along the Lake Champlain route. In 2007, 12 cars derailed near Route 22 in Essex, N.Y., the same stretch of tracks now carrying volatile oil.

      Concern over the state of North American freight rail safety predates the increase in oil shipments. In 2006 the Toronto Star ran a five-part series on rail safety. They noted “Canadian freight trains are running off the rails in near record numbers and spilling toxic fluids at an alarming rate, but only a tiny fraction of the accidents are ever investigated.”

      In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is very heavy. Cleanup of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely difficult. The oil sinks rather than floating, making containment very difficult.

      The greatly increased traffic in oil has further strained railroad infrastructure. According to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. They have been referred to as “Pepsi cans on wheels.” These cars are built to carry liquids, but lack specialized safety features found in pressurized tanks used for hauling explosive liquids. The industry has agreed to include additional safety features in any new cars put on the tracks, but since rail cars have an economic life of 30 to 40 years, conversion to the newer cars has been slow.

      One relatively new risk is the predominance of “unit trains.” These are long series of cars all shipped from the same originating point to the same destination. Often the cars will all carry the same product. It used to be that oil cars were mixed in with other freight cars bound for different locations. Unit trains are a greater risk in part because safety standards are based on the carrying capacity of a single car and don’t account for the greater volumes that unit trains can transport. The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating accidents, has called on the Federal Railroad Administration to change this standard.

      Recently, an oil company submitted plans to build an oil heating facility in Albany, N.Y. The facility would be used to heat oil shipped via rail. The oil would then be transferred to barges and floated to refineries. If permitted, a heating facility would draw increased transport of Canadian tar sands, which needs to be diluted or heated for loading or unloading, through the Lake Champlain region. In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is very heavy. Cleanup of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely difficult. The oil sinks rather than floating, making containment very difficult. When a pipeline carrying tar sands oil broke near Kalamazoo, Mich., 850,000 gallons spilled. The resulting cleanup cost over $1 billion and costs were “substantially higher than the average cost of cleaning up a similar amount of conventional oil,” according to a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service.

      In November of 2013, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) declared the proposed facility would have no significant environmental impacts. However, public outrage led them to reconsider that declaration, expand the public comment period, and seek additional information from the proponents. Still, the additional requested information only touches the tip of the facility’s impacts on the region. The facility should undergo a full environmental impact review that includes potential impacts on freight shipping throughout the region including along Lake Champlain.

      The increased risk associated with more oil transport along Lake Champlain and in the region seemed to catch regulators by surprise, but they are reacting now. On Jan. 28, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to do a top-to-bottom review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to rail shipments of oil. On Feb. 26, Sen. Schumer called for the phase-out of all DOT-111 rail cars and reduction in rail speed limits in heavily populated areas. On March 4, Cuomo sent a letter to the secretaries of the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation urging them to expedite and strengthen rail safety standards, require reporting by railroad companies of derailments, increase inspections and identify and track rail cars carrying crude oil. On April 10, the DEC issued a joint press release with EPA and the Coast Guard committing the agencies to enhance emergency preparedness and response capabilities for potential crude oil incidents. On April 30, Gov. Cuomo wrote a letter calling on President Barack Obama to prioritize federal actions to reduce risks of future train derailments.

      Delays by the Federal Railroad Administration in updating standards to reflect the greatly increased traffic of potentially explosive Bakken crude oil all around the country puts people, communities, Lake Champlain and other waterways at risk. The administration needs to act before another disaster like what occurred in Lac Megantic occurs here or elsewhere. Train whistles echoing off the lake should elicit wistful thoughts of faraway places, not shudders of dread.

      Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship and ensure recreational access.