Advocacy group: Thousands in Sacramento face the risk of crude oil train spills
by Tony Bizjak | June 19, 2014
More than 135,000 Sacramentans live within a half-mile of rail tracks and could find themselves in harm’s way should a crude oil train derailment cause a spill, according to a report published Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council in California. The group’s maps show 25,000 residents in Davis within a half-mile of train tracks.
The NRDC study includes maps of rail lines through seven California cities, showing areas likely to require evacuation in case of serious rail incident. It is unclear which lines might carry crude oil trains. Oil companies and railroads closely guard information about crude oil rail movements. NRDC said its analysis of a handful of oil company refinery and terminal projects indicates more than seven trains, each a mile long, could soon run through metropolitan areas daily.
Oil companies increasingly are turning to rail shipments of crude oil, responding to the availability of less expensive deposits in North Dakota and Canada. Diane Bailey, a scientist with NRDC, said the state does not yet have safety measures and adequate emergency response plans in place to handle the expected increase.
The NRDC report follows a report Tuesday authorized by the city of Benicia that said a plan for the city’s Valero Refining Co. to run 100 crude oil train cars a day through Sacramento, Roseville, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities is unlikely to cause a spill.
Those trains could begin operation later this year and are expected to run on the rail line shared by the Capitol Corridor passenger train service. That line loops into Sacramento near Business 80, and runs westward along the top of the downtown perimeter, passing through the downtown railyard, then over the I Street Bridge to West Sacramento. It continues through downtown Davis on its way to Benicia.
Acknowledging the growing concern, federal officials have issued warnings about the potential higher flammability of one crude oil type, Bakken oil, and have been exploring implementing tougher safety designs for crude oil tankers to replace the current fleet, which has been deemed inadequate to safely transport volatile crude oils.
In its report, the NRDC called for officials to:
• Remove antiquated oil tankers from service.
• Impose lower speed limits on crude oil trains.
• Reroute trains around sensitive areas.
• Require railroads to disclose the contents of trains.
• Make emergency procedures available to local residents.
• Assess fees on shippers to cover costs of improved emergency response to incidents.
• Elevate crude oil trains to the highest risk category for hazardous material shipments.
• Require oil companies to conduct “cumulative risk analysis” for oil rail infrastructure projects, so that the overall impact of all projects is adequately analyzed.
Report minimizes risk from oil trains through Roseville, Sacramento
By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate The Sacramento Bee | Jun. 17, 2014
A much-anticipated report released Tuesday offered new details and some controversial safety conclusions about a Bay Area oil company’s plan to run crude-oil trains daily through Roseville and Sacramento to Benicia.
Valero Refining Co., which operates a sweeping plant on a hillside overlooking Suisun Bay, plans to transport crude oil from undisclosed North American oil fields on two 50-car trains every 24 hours through the Sacramento region to the Benicia site. One would run at night and the other in the middle of the day to minimize conflicts with Capitol Corridor passenger trains, which share the same line.
If the project is approved, Valero would begin shipments later this year or early next year. The trains would cut through downtown Roseville, Sacramento and Davis, and pass within a quarter-mile of 27 schools, 11 of them in Sacramento, according to the draft environmental impact report, which was commissioned by the city of Benicia, lead agency on the project.
In findings that already are provoking debate, authors of the draft report concluded that the shipments would not constitute a significant safety risk for communities along the rail route because those trains are very unlikely to crash or spill their oil.
“Although the consequences of a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low,” wrote the report’s author, Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco. The report notes that safety steps by federal officials and railroad associations, such as slower train speeds through some urban areas and more track inspections, already are reducing the chance of crashes.
A spill risk assessment included in the report calculates the probability of a spill of 100 gallons or more in the 69 miles between Roseville and Benicia as occurring only once every 111 years. The key report section regarding impact on up-rail cities, including Sacramento, Davis, West Sacramento and Roseville, concludes: “Mitigation: None required.”
Several local Sacramento leaders on Tuesday said they had not yet read the Benicia report, which runs hundreds of pages, but that they weren’t soothed by a declaration that oil spills are unlikely.
Mike Webb, director of community development and sustainability in Davis, said the assessment misses a frightening reality for people living along the rail line: “It only needs to happen once to be a real problem.”
Across North America, six major crude-oil train crashes in the last year resulted in 2.8 million gallons of oil spilled, some of it causing explosions and forcing evacuations. The worst of those occurred last July in Lac-Megantic, Canada, where a runaway Bakken train crashed, spilling 1.6 million gallons of crude and fueling an explosion that killed 47 people and leveled part of that city’s downtown.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced a bill last week to charge the oil industry a rail-related fee to pay for safety measures. In an interview earlier this week, he said he believes “it is not a matter of will (a spill) happen, it’s when. We have to be prepared.”
The debate over the Valero project is part of a growing discussion nationally about crude oil safety, prompted by increased pumping in recent years of less-expensive crude oil from Canada and the Bakken fields of North Dakota.
The surge in extracting North American oil is enabling some companies, such as Valero, to reduce reliance on overseas shipments of foreign oil. At the same time, it has caused a dramatic increase in the number of trains crisscrossing the country, pulling 100 cars or more of flammable crude through downtowns, with almost no notice to the public and minimal warning to local fire departments.
The debate was heightened by a federal warning earlier this year that Bakken crude may be more volatile than other crudes, and by federal concerns that the fleet of train tanker cars in use nationally is inadequate to safely transport crude oils. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration issued a report saying California is behind in taking steps to protect cities and habitat from potential oil spills given the increase in crude oil shipments.
The draft environmental impact report released Tuesday does not state whether Valero will be transporting Bakken crude to Benicia. Valero has declined to disclose publicly exactly which crude oils it will ship. But the report lists Bakken as one of the lighter crudes Valero could ship.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering amending tank car design standards in light of concerns raised by recent fiery spills. Valero officials say they already have purchased some tank cars that have more safety features than most rail cars in use nationally. Valero spokesman Chris Howe said his company would expect to phase in retrofits of those cars, depending on what the federal government ultimately requires.
In California, the Valero crude-by-rail project is one of a handful planned by refineries. Another by Phillips 66 in Santa Maria likely will involve crude oil shipments through Sacramento. Several Kern County refineries also are adjusting or planning to retrofit their sites to receive crude shipments by rail. Trains last year began delivering crude oil to a transfer station at McClellan Park in Sacramento.
Rail companies are insisting that details of those shipments not be disclosed to the public, saying they are worried about security issues and don’t want to divulge “trade secrets” to competitors.
Local officials, including fire chiefs, recently have said they want to know more about the Valero project in particular. The Davis City Council has passed a resolution saying it does not want the shipments to come through the existing UP line in downtown.
Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui, responding to questions by email Tuesday, expressed concern as well. “As the number of cars coming through Sacramento increases, it is clear that our risk also increases,” she wrote.
Webb, the Davis community development director, said representatives from Sacramento area cities will meet in two weeks to discuss the Benicia environmental report. Several local officials have said they would like Valero and UP to work with them on safety measures, including more communication about train movements and hazardous materials training.
The Benicia report declines to specify the routes trains may take to get from oil fields to Roseville, saying that any potential routes beyond Roseville are speculative. The most likely routes, according to people knowledgeable about rail movements, are through the Sacramento Valley via Dunsmuir and Redding, as well as over Donner Summit or through the Feather River Canyon.
The conclusion that an oil spill between Roseville and Benicia is a once-in-111-years event was made by Christopher Barkan, an expert on hazardous rail transport at the University of Illinois who did a risk assessment attached to the draft environmental impact report. Barkan previously worked for the American Association of Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association, according to his institute’s website.
Barkan, in an email, said his work for Benicia was not influenced by his relationships with the railroad association.
“The AAR had nothing to do with this project,” he wrote. “Whenever I am approached about conducting projects such as this, I discuss any potential conflicts of interest with other sponsors, as I did in this case, and it was mutually agreed that there was none … My role is to apply the best data and analytical methods possible to assess risk, irrespective of the sponsor.”
Benicia city officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The draft EIR will be circulated for public comment this summer. Those comments will be incorporated into a final environmental document, to be voted on by the Benicia City Council. The council has the authority to approve changes at Valero’s plant to allow the oil company to begin rail shipments.
Howe, the Valero spokesman, complimented the city of Benicia on “the thoroughness and detail” of the report.
“We are reviewing the material published today and will be developing comments as part of the process. We look forward to working with the community and the city of Benicia toward completion of this important project.”
Valero Oil-by-Rail Plan Has ‘Unavoidable’ Air Impacts, City Says
By Lynn Doan Jun 17, 2014
Valero Energy Corp. (VLO)’s plan to unload as many as 70,000 barrels of oil a day from trains at its Benicia refinery will increase emissions across California in a “significant and unavoidable” way, a city report shows.
Valero has applied to build a rail-offloading rack at the plant northeast of San Francisco that would take oil from as many as 100 tanker cars a day. The San Antonio-based company delayed the project’s completion by a year to early 2015 as it awaits approval from the city.
“Project-related trains would generate locomotive emissions in the Bay Area Basin, the Sacramento Basin, and other locations in North America,” the city of Benicia said in an environmental assessment posted on its website today. “The city has no jurisdiction to impose any emission controls on the tanker car locomotives; therefore, there is no feasible mitigation available to reduce this significant impact to a less-than-significant level.”
Valero is proposing the rail spur as record volumes of oil are extracted from North American shale formations that the U.S. West Coast has little pipeline access to. California’s refiners are already bringing in the biggest-ever volumes of oil by rail as they seek to displace shrinking supplies of crude within the state and from Alaska.
A series of explosions and derailments of trains carrying crude, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people in July, touched off a flood of letters to the city of Benicia about Valero’s project and compelled the planning commission to put off a decision until an environmental study could be done.
Regulators in both the U.S. and Canada are imposing new rules designed to improve the safety of trains carrying oil and a group of California agencies released a report June 10 recommending ways in which the state should respond.
Earlier this month, the city council in Vancouver, Washington, voted to oppose a proposal by Tesoro Corp. (TSO) and Savage Cos. to build a 360,000-barrel-a-day, rail-to-marine complex at the Port of Vancouver.
Valero’s Benicia project would probably result in a spill of more than 100 gallons once every 111 years, according to an analysis conducted as part of the city’s environmental report. The report was prepared by researchers at the University of Illinois’s Rail Transportation and Engineering Center in Urbana, Illinois.
California’s refiners received 557,315 barrels of oil by rail in April, the most ever for that month, state Energy Commission data show. Crude from Canada made up 45 percent of the state’s total rail receipts. Oil from North Dakota accounted for 22 percent.
Valero has described refining in the western U.S as “a challenged market” with margins close to break-even when all of the region’s plants are running normally. Profits from the 132,000-barrel-a-day Benicia refinery are particularly under pressure, Joe Gorder, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said in a presentation May 21.
The plant “produces a significant yield of gasoline, which, of course, we’ve seen the margins compressed on and demand not be the greatest on,” Gorder said at the UBS Global Oil and Gas Conference in Austin, Texas. Sourcing alternative crudes on the West Coast “would increase the economics out there for us substantially,” he said.
Spot California-grade diesel has traded about 3.5 cents a gallon above gasoline in Los Angeles this year and averaged an 8.75-cent premium in 2013, data compiled by Bloomberg show.