Tag Archives: Turlock CA

Sacramento Bee editorial: We need open debate on oil train safety

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Benicia Independent Editor:  A bit odd that the Bee editorial is defending the rail industry’s right to talk to the media and to lobby congress.  Nice, though, when the Bee writes, “Thankfully, officials in Benicia actually listened to people who exercised free speech.  They announced last week they will redo parts of an environmental study….”  A call for open debate is a good thing.  However, the House subcommittee’s urging for timely new rules on tank car safety is infinitely more important than Rep. Denham’s comment and the Bee’s response.  For a more substantive article on the subcommittee proceedings, see the CQ Roll Call story.  – RS]

We need open debate on oil train safety

By the Editorial Board, 02/10/2015
Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year.
Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year. Pete Marovich / MCT Tribune News Service

As oil trains rumble through the Sacramento region, a key House panel held an important hearing on how rail and pipelines can keep up – safely – with the boom in domestic oil production. For two hours, top rail and oil industry executives testified and answered questions on this crucial issue.

Then Rep. Jeff Denham had to go and spoil it.

The Turlock Republican, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, ended last week’s hearing on an unfortunate note – an unnecessary dressing down of a rail car manufacturing executive who called on federal regulators to speed up the rollout of safer oil tank cars.

Though his firm (which has a repair shop in Modesto) would benefit financially, Greg Saxton, senior vice president and chief engineer at the Greenbrier Companies, happens to be right. The National Transportation Safety Board, which put rail tank car safety on its “most wanted” list for 2015, points out that more than 100,000 outdated cars carry crude, increasing the risk of leaks and explosions. Denham also says he’s concerned that the U.S. Department of Transportation missed its own Jan. 30 deadline to submit new rules on oil tank cars.

So what was Saxton’s transgression, according to Denham? He had the temerity to talk to lowly newspaper editorial writers, as well as esteemed members of Congress.

Denham lectured Saxton that he didn’t want the “wrong people” – whoever they are – “talking to the ed boards across the country” and creating a “misperception” that “our industry” is unsafe.

“I just want to make sure we’re all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together in improving that industry,” the congressman said, as pointed out by Mike Dunbar, opinions page editor at The Modesto Bee who talked to Saxton last month.

Last time we checked, acting as a public relations consultant for the oil industry isn’t Denham’s job. He should care much more about keeping his constituents in Modesto and Turlock safe. As chairman of this important panel, he should encourage open debate. Instead, his spokeswoman said Tuesday, Denham stands by his remarks to Saxton.

Thankfully, officials in Benicia actually listened to people who exercised free speech.

They announced last week they will redo parts of an environmental study on the proposal for two 50-car oil trains a day to traverse Sacramento and other Northern California cities on the way to the Valero refinery in Benicia.

Benicia officials are responding to environmental groups, Sacramento-area officials and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who had all properly pointed out that the report fell short in analyzing potential oil spills and fires in the middle of urban areas and didn’t even consider possible harm east of Roseville.

The updated study, to be released June 30, also needs to at least consider suggestions from Sacramento and Davis leaders that Union Pacific Railroad be required to give advance notice of oil shipments to emergency responders and be banned from parking oil trains in urban areas.

They’re the sorts of ideas that people might just want to explain to a congressional committee – or perhaps even an editorial board.

California’s central valley: we need to double the tracks for all these trains

Repost from The Turlock Journal

Time to double what’s coming down the tracks

By Dennis Wyatt, October 10, 2014

Get ready for more trains.

Kern County has approved the expansion of two of its three existing or proposed oil terminals that would increase the amount of oil moving by train by 620 percent.

This has the potential to be both a good and a bad thing.

First the good. California due to its location and its need for specialized refineries to meet air quality standards is not benefitting from lower gas prices triggered by America’s shale oil boom While the fracking revolution has reduced the nation’s oil imports from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries by 30 percent since 2004 for the rest of the United States, California imports have jumped 33 percent during the same time frame.

Oil costs $15 more per barrel from overseas and the North Slope in Alaska than it does from domestic sources in the Lower 48 states.

There is no pipeline that crosses the Rockies into the West to carry crude oil. At the same time, just 1 percent of California’s monthly oil needs — 500,000 barrels — is now moved by rail. Eight planned oil terminals throughout the state could push that amount to 15 million gallons a month or a third of California’s oil use.

It costs $12 a barrel to move oil by train from the Bakken oil fields to California.

That translates into $3 less per barrel. By tapping into North Dakota crude, California drivers could benefit at the pump.

Currently Kern County terminals have the capacity to handle 57 tank cars of oil a day. If all of the proposed expansion is completed, the oil terminals could handle 357 tank cars a day. Each tanker holds an average of 700 barrels of crude oil.

The most direct route from the Bakken oil fields to Kern County is via Donner Pass using the Union Pacific. That would bring significantly more oil tanks cars through Lathrop, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, and Turlock.

Santa Fe serves Kern County from the southeast.

Should all plans go forward in Kern County and Union Pacific moves the crude, it creates the potential for three 100-car oil trains a day.

That would be on top of intermodal train traffic where truck trailers are carried on flat cars that is expected to increase as UP expands their Lathrop terminal.

Up until the surge in shale oil production a strong argument could be made that shipping crude and dangerous chemicals by rail is substantially safer than by truck for miles covered.

But recent crude oil train derailments and explosions have upset that premise. Shale oil crude has turned out to be more volatile than regular crude. There has been a push to retrofit existing tank cars or deploy new ones that are less susceptible to exploding in a train derailment.

An oil train derailment in Quebec last year killed 47 people.

That’s why increased oil movement by rail makes many people nervous for obvious reasons.

That said a lot of potential explosive and toxic materials move daily through the Valley by rail.

And 26 years ago Manteca had a train derailment involving several tankers carrying toxic chemicals in the early morning fog that forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people.

Moving goods whether it is oil or a truckload of potato chips is never without risk.

Union Pacific’s has a fairly impressive safety record and routinely monitors and upgrades their main line through the San Joaquin Valley.

Also, surrounding fire agencies do joint drills in case the unthinkable happens.

Even so local elected officials need to start thinking about a couple of things. Increased train traffic — whether it is oil trains, regular freight trains or intermodal trains — means more waiting at crossings. More waiting usually means more impatient motorists — a primary ingredient for train disasters.

At the same time Altamont Corridor Express is pushing to extend passenger train service to Modesto, Turlock and eventually Merced. The original 2018 timetable now looks a tad ambitious. But sometime in the relatively near future it can happen.

And because of that, Manteca’s elected leaders need to lobby hard to make sure ACE goes with a plan to double tracks between Modesto and Lathrop.

It reduces scheduling conflicts for freight, oil and passenger movements. And it also will somewhat reduce waiting times at crossings. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for twice a day for trains to block the Austin Road and Industrial Park Road crossings for 15 to 20 minutes while waiting for a train to pass.

Given the potential for eight passenger trains a day between Modesto and Lathrop once the ACE extension is up and running and even more when it connects with high speed rail at Merced to ferry passengers between there and Sacramento, double tracking becomes essential.

This is not one of those “we can wait to see what happens” things. The coming of more oil trains is a clear signal Manteca needs to start pursuing those in charge of planning the ACE extension to make sure the route through Manteca is double tracked not just for safety’s sake but also to make taking rail a viable commuting alternative.