Category Archives: Valero Benicia Refinery

San Francisco Chronicle: Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

By Jaxon Van Derbeken, October 23, 2014
Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered.
Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

A plan to bring tank-car trains filled with crude oil from Canada and North Dakota to a Benicia refinery is pitting the Solano County town against Northern California neighbors who say they will be burdened with the risk of environmental catastrophe.

Benicia officials must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on a $70million terminal at Valero Corp.’s refinery near Interstate 680, where two 50-car oil trains a day would deliver crude.

Supporters and the company say California consumers stand to benefit: With no major oil pipelines running to the West Coast and marine transport both costly and potentially hazardous, they say, rail is the best way to keep local gasoline prices low.

“Right now, that refinery relies on more expensive crude from Alaska,” said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero. “Rail is the quickest, most efficient and safest way of delivery.”

Benicia’s environmental study weighing the risks of the project, however, has done nothing to assuage critics who say the city is downplaying the dangers of delivering oil by rail.

Crude from North Dakota shale is extra-volatile, they say, and the city’s environmental report assessed only the chances of a spill along the 69 miles of track from the Sacramento suburbs to Benicia — not the chance of a catastrophic explosion, or the possibility of an accident of any kind along the more than 1,000 additional miles the trains would have to travel to reach the shores of the Carquinez Strait.

“This project is not in our region — it is outside of our region — but the impacts on the 2.3million people who live here we view as very significant, very troublesome, very disturbing,” said Don Saylor, chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 22 cities and six counties through which the oil trains could travel.

‘A street fight’

Benicia itself is divided by the proposed project. Some locals worry about the environmental risks and traffic problems, while others tout the benefits of low-cost crude to Valero — a company that accounts for a quarter of the city’s tax revenue.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.” | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

“This is going to be a street fight,” said oil-train opponent Ed Ruszel, whose family woodworking business fronts the railroad tracks next to the refinery. “They have to come across my driveway every day — we’re at ground zero.”

The issue is so contentious that the city attorney recently told Mayor Elizabeth Patterson to stop sending out e-mail alerts about city meetings regarding the oil-train project. According to Patterson, the city attorney warned that her activism could open Benicia’s final decision to legal challenge.

Patterson said she has not taken a stand on the Valero terminal, but that “we need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”

She called City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin’s warning “a blatant effort to muzzle me.” Mc Laughlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Canadian disaster

For Ruszel and other critics of the project, the danger is real. They cite several recent oil-by-rail explosions, including the derailment of a 72-car train that killed 47 people and wiped out much of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec in July 2013.

The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains.
The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

The Valero-bound trains would pass through Sacramento, Davis and Fairfield, among other cities, en route to Benicia. Those cities have voiced concerns about the terminal, where trains would deliver a total of 2.9million gallons a day of shale oil and tar sands.

“We have lots of support here from our own local people,” said project critic Marilyn Bardet of Benicia, “but the real difference is that there are so many agencies and people from up rail looking at this problem. We feel exonerated — everybody has chimed in and agreed with us.”

Not everyone along the rail line is against the idea, however. State Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican who represents Rocklin (Placer County) and is running for state insurance commissioner, called the project “beneficial environmentally and economically.”

It “can be done safely given the prevention, preparedness and response measures in place by both Valero and Union Pacific Railroad,” Gaines said.

Setting precedents

The Benicia battle will probably be a preview of numerous local fights over oil trains in California. Oil-by-rail shipments jumped from 1million barrels in 2012 to 6.3million barrels in 2013, according to government estimates. By 2016, the state could be awash with 150million rail-shipped barrels of crude a year.

What Benicia does could influence how future oil-train plans play out. Several cities have called on Benicia to require that all train tanker cars have reinforced walls and be better controlled by new, electronically activated braking systems, and that officials restrict what kind of oil can be shipped to Valero.

Such efforts, however, could run afoul of federal law that preempts states and local governments from setting standards on rail lines. Valero has already warned city officials that it may “invoke the full scope of federal preemption,” a thinly veiled threat to sue if Benicia imposes too many restrictions.

Much of the crude that would arrive via train at Valero is expected to come from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Federal transportation officials recently deemed Bakken crude to be an “imminent hazard” because it is far more easily ignitable than more stable grades of crude previously shipped by rail.

In issuing an alert in May, federal transportation officials warned that oil trains with more than 20 cars are at the highest risk because they are heavier than typical cargo and thus more difficult to control. The federal government is considering requiring additional reinforcement of tanker cars and more robust braking systems.

The federal alert about the danger of crude by rail comes as accidents have skyrocketed, with nine major explosions nationwide since the start of 2013. Last year alone, trains spilled more than 1million gallons of crude in the United States — 72 percent more than the entire amount spilled in the previous four decades combined, California officials say.

The consultants who wrote Benicia’s draft environmental impact study concluded that because the type of crude that would be brought to Valero is a trade secret, they could not factor it into their risk assessment. They calculated that a major spill on the 69 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and Benicia could be expected roughly once every 111 years.

Among those who think Benicia needs to take a harder look is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office wrote a letter challenging the environmental impact report this month.

Harris’ office says the report’s authors assumed that the safest rail cars available would be used, disregarded spills of fewer than 100 gallons in determining the likelihood of accidents and, in looking only as far as Roseville, ignored 125 miles of routes north and east of the Sierra foothills town.

Some possible routes go through treacherous mountain passes that historically have seen more accidents, say oil-train skeptics. While not specifically mentioning a legal challenge, Harris’ office called Benicia’s study deficient and said it ignored the “serious, potentially catastrophic, impacts” of an accident.

Not her call

Valero says Harris can voice all the objections she wants, but that she doesn’t get a say on whether the terminal will be built.

“This is really the city of Benicia’s decision,” said Day, the company spokesman. The attorney general and others, he said, are “free to file comments” on the environmental report.

He added that “all the crude oil that Valero ships will be in the newest rail cars, which meet or exceed rail safety specifications.”

“Rail companies have products moving on the rails every day that are flammable,” Day said. “The overwhelming majority of everything transported gets there safely, on time, with no incidents.”

Benicia’s City Council now has to decide whether to order to certify the draft study, order it revised or reject it entirely. When that decision comes, Benicia will be getting a lot of out-of-town attention.

“We have near-unanimity in our region to address the safety issues of the crude-oil shipments by rail,” said Saylor, the Yolo County supervisor. “For us, it has been strictly about public safety. It’s a high-risk operation — we have no choice but to take on this issue.”

    Vallejo Times-Herald: Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

    Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

    Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

    Union Pacific, BNSF Railway argue federal law pre-empts state regulations
    By Tony Burchyns, October 9, 2014

    California’s two major railroad companies filed a lawsuit this week to argue that the state lacks authority to impose its own safety requirements on federally regulated crude oil train traffic.

    The lawsuit follows a new state law imposing regulations on the transportation of crude oil by rail in California. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway filed the case Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to argue that federal law pre-empts California and other states from enforcing such regulatory regimes.

    “The new state law requires railroads to take a broad range of steps to prevent and respond to oil spills, on top of their myriad federal obligations concerning precisely the same subject matter,” the railroads argue. “UP, BNSF and other members of (the American Association of Railroads) will be barred from operating within California unless a California regulator approves oil spill prevention and response plans that they will have to create, pursuant to a panoply of California-specific requirements.”

    The railroads also will be required to obtain a “certificate of financial responsibility” from the state, indicating they are able to cover damages resulting from an oil spill. Failure to comply with the new state rules will expose railroad employees to jail time and fines, according to the lawsuit.

    The California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has declined to comment on the pending litigation.

    The state law was passed in June following a sharp rise in crude-by-rail shipments in California from 2012 to 2013 and several high-profile oil train derailments in other states as well as Canada. In the Bay Area, crude-by-rail projects in Benicia, Richmond, Pittsburg, Martinez and Stockton have drawn local attention to the prospect of mile-long oil trains snaking through neighborhoods, mountain passes and sensitive habitats such as the Suisun Marsh.

    Last week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to Benicia challenging plans to ship 70,000 barrels of crude daily by train to the city’s Valero refinery. Valero is seeking city approval to build a rail terminal to receive two 50-car oil trains daily from Roseville. The train shipments would originate in North Dakota or possibly Canada.

    Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, criticized the city for underestimating the project’s safety and environmental risks. The letter was among hundreds received by the city in response to its initial environmental impact report. City officials say they are in the process of responding to all of the comments, and plan to do so before the project’s next, yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing is held.

      California bridge inspectors getting started – will visit only 30 of 5,000 bridges in 2015

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee

      Editorial: California makes progress on train safety by inspecting railroad bridges

      By the Editorial Board, Oct. 9, 2014
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      Emergency responders learn about the different types of railroad tank cars in a safety class last week at a CSX yard in Richmond, Va. CSX uses its “safety train” to train first responders in communities where it hauls large volumes of crude oil. Curtis Tate / McClatchy-Tribune

      It’s encouraging that important steps are being taken to make sure oil trains rumbling through California don’t derail, but the job isn’t nearly done yet.

      For the first time, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to check behind safety inspections by private railroad companies of rail bridges across the state, focusing on those traversed by trains carrying crude oil.

      The commission is deploying two new bridge inspectors – among seven new rail inspectors hired with money allocated by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in response to rising concerns about more oil trains in California. The two inspectors will likely work as a team, visiting four bridges a week. They won’t be doing full inspections, but rather reviewing that the railroads’ safety checks are in proper order.

      At that rate, it would take 50 years to check all 5,000 rail bridges, as The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak reported this week. That obviously isn’t fast enough.

      So the commission is compiling a priority list of the first 30 bridges for visits in 2015. Here are two possible ones that should be strongly considered: the heavily used, 103-year-old I Street Bridge in downtown Sacramento and the Clear Creek Trestle in Feather River Canyon. Both are expected to be on primary routes for oil trains.

      It’s also significant that state and local officials are pushing for a more complete risk assessment of Valero’s proposal to run oil trains through Northern California to its Benicia refinery.

      Late last month, the utilities commission and the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response joined the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the cities of Davis and Sacramento in raising concerns that the city of Benicia’s draft environmental impact report underestimated the potential of explosion and fire from two 50-car trains going daily through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities. Attorney General Kamala Harris has jumped on the bandwagon, too.

      For one thing, state officials say they want more detail on how Benicia officials came up with a projection that a train derailment would spill 100 gallons or more of oil only once every 111 years along the 69 miles of track between Roseville and Benicia.

      At the same time, California’s two U.S. senators are pressing federal transportation officials to expand their requirements for railroads to notify first responders of oil shipments. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency order, issued in May, covers only shipments of at least 1 million gallons (about 35 rail cars) of crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

      Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say that notification ought to be required for any quantity of Bakken, or any kind of crude oil or other flammable liquid, for that matter.

      They’re right. If safety is the goal, there’s no logical reason that smaller shipments and other kinds of crude aren’t covered. The notification mandate is among proposed rules on oil trains that federal officials plan to impose by year’s end. They also include phasing out older rail cars, lower speed limits and more comprehensive response plans for spills.

      Those federal regulations will become even more crucial if California’s two major railroad companies – BNSF and Union Pacific – win their federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenges a new state law requiring them to come up with oil spill prevention and response plans. The companies argue that federal law prevents states from imposing such safety rules.

      This is often how important safety improvements get made – step by step, at different levels of government, with advocates having to keep pushing for stronger protections against industry resistance. Everyone involved should have one priority – putting public safety first and foremost.