Sacramento Area leaders call for strong safety controls on oil trains headed west and south

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento leaders call for more crude-oil train safety

By Tony Bizjak, 11/14/2014
A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil at McClellan Park in March.
A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil at McClellan Park in March. Randall Benton

Concerned about potential oil spills and fires, Sacramento leaders are calling for stronger safety controls on a Phillips 66 proposal to transport crude oil via trains through Sacramento neighborhoods to the oil company’s refinery in San Luis Obispo County.

In a letter approved Thursday by board members of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, regional officials are asking San Luis Obispo County to require the oil company to notify local fire officials before any crude oil train comes through the area, limit the parking of crude-oil-laden trains in the urban area, provide funding for training on fighting oil fires, and require trains and tracks to have modern safety features.

SACOG officials said they are not taking a stance against rail shipments of crude oil in general.

“Our intent is not to prohibit any types of shipments, our intent is to ensure that where they are shipped that we impose the most reasonably feasible safety measures for our communities,” the agency’s attorney Kirk Trost said during a board briefing this week.

A boom in domestic oil production in North Dakota, Colorado, Texas and other Western states in recent years has prompted safety concerns after several high-profile oil-train explosions, including one in Canada that killed 47 people last year. The federal government is formulating new safety regulations, including a requirement for sturdier tank cars.

SACOG’s letter comes in response to a Phillips 66 proposal to ship oil via train five days a week to its Santa Maria Refinery in San Luis Obispo County. Many of those trains are likely to come through Northern California, via Roseville, and run through downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis and East Bay cities. Some could take a route through Sacramento to Stockton, then west into the Bay Area. The route east of Roseville is unknown.

The Sacramento group, in its letter, also joined a growing national chorus of cities and states demanding that particularly flammable crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota be stripped of its more volatile elements before being loaded on trains.

In an email to The Sacramento Bee, Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss said Phillips does not plan to ship Bakken oil to its Santa Maria Refinery. He did not specify which types of crude oil the refinery will receive.

“Phillips 66 is working to ensure the long-term viability of the Santa Maria Refinery and the many jobs it provides,” he wrote. “Our plans for this project reflect our company’s commitment to operational excellence and safety while enhancing the competitiveness of the facility.”

SACOG, a transportation planning agency formed by the region’s six counties and 22 cities, previously called for similar safety measures on another oil company plan to transport oil, likely Bakken, through Sacramento to a Benicia refinery. Valero Refining Co. officials say they hope to start next year shipping two 50-car oil trains a day through Sacramento to that plant.

Railroads have long successfully argued that federal railroad regulations pre-empt states, counties and cities from imposing any rules on their operations. In their letter, Sacramento officials contend that San Luis Obispo County and Benicia can require the oil refineries to write safety measures into their contracts with the rail carrier companies. A rail law expert, Mike Conneran of the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco, said Sacramento’s argument might have legal merit, but likely will have to be tested in court.

Crude-oil trains have proliferated in recent years around the country as producers use newer fracking technologies to unearth previously trapped oil deposits in the West. California Energy Commission analysts say very little of that oil is being transported on rail into California currently, but they say as much as 22 percent of the state’s oil will arrive by train by 2016.

One such shipment comes through Sacramento, traveling on the rail line that cuts through North Sacramento, midtown, Land Park and Meadowview en route to Richmond in the Bay Area. The BNSF Railway company recently filed papers with state emergency officials indicating they are running up to two trains a week on that route, an increase from one train a week earlier this year.

Another major crude-by-rail facility, outside of Bakersfield, is expected to open before the end of this year and may take shipments of crude oil on rail that will come through Sacramento. A spokesman for Plains All American, owner of the facility, declined comment on the routes the trains will take, saying that will be a decision the railroad companies will make.

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