Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Benicia DEIR downplays risks in marked contrast to NRDC assessment

Repost from AllGov California

This Is Where Deadly Crude Oil Trains May Be Rolling Through California

By Ken Broder, June 20, 2014
(graphic: Natural Resources Defense Council)

Although this country’s oil boom has been accompanied by an explosion of dangerous crude-carrying trains―literally and figuratively―a much-anticipated environmental impact report (Summary pdf) says the spill threat from Valero Refining Company’s proposal to run 100 tanker cars a day through Roseville and Sacramento to its Benicia refinery is negligible.

The draft EIR, written by Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco for the city of Benicia and released on Tuesday, singled out air pollution, “significant and unavoidable,” as the sole danger among 11 “environmental resource or issue areas.”

The next day, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released seven maps detailing the rail routes through the “Crude Oil Train Derailment Risk Zones in California,” which stretches from the Bay Area to the Central/San Joaquin Valley and encompasses 4 million people.

The NRDC’s assessment of risk was markedly different than in the EIR. Noting that “California has seen a dramatic increase of crude by rail, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million barrels in 2013” without any new safety measures or emergency response put in place, the NRDC report said the aging “soda cans on wheels” are not built to handle the particularly volatile crude being fracked out of the ground in America’s rejuvenated oil fields like those in North Dakota, and shipped to refiners.

Tracks would run within half a mile of 135,000 people in Sacramento and 25,000 people in Davis.

The NRDC wants old tanker cars removed from service, lower speeds for trains, rerouting through less-sensitive areas, disclosure of what kind of crude is being carried, more visible emergency preparedness, fees on shippers to pay for emergency response, high-risk designations for oil-trains and more comprehensive risk assessments.

The EIR was a bit more upbeat.

It concluded that oil spills between Roseville and Benicia would occur about once every 111 years. The project would have no impact on agriculture and forestry resources or mineral resources. It would also have less-than-significant impacts on aesthetics, population and housing, public services, recreation and utilities and service systems.

In other words, the assumption is there won’t be anything like the tragic accident in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 72 tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town’s core. As Russell Gold and Betsy Morris explained in the Wall Street Journal, “Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a wide body jetliner.”

The Sacramento Bee said the risk assessment’s author, Christopher Barken, previously worked for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association.

Barken’s website at the University of Illinois, where he is a professor and executive director of the Railroad Engineering Program, says, “Our strong relationship with the rail industry means our research has an impact.”

In describing the twice-a-day snaking of 50-car trains through heavily populated areas, the report offered far more information than has generally been made available by rail companies to state and local governments, as well as disaster first-responders. But the EIR did acknowledge Benicia would not reveal seven Valero “trade secrets” (pdf) at the oil company’s request.

That “confidential business information” included the specific crude Valero would be shipping in by rail and the properties of crude it refined now or in the past. That lack of information would be complicating factors in accurately assessing pollution and risk.

California, like states and localities across the nation, are scrambling just to get a handle on how much crude-by-rail is coursing through their jurisdictions, much less assessing what regulations and safety measures need to be put in place. They are working blind.

A study by Politico analyzed 400 oil-train incidents nationally since 1971 and found a dramatic escalation the past five years. Property damage from 70 accidents through mid-May this year is already $10 million, triple the year before.

“It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said.

They must. Because the trains are already rolling and Valero would like to get its California project finished by the end of the year. America is waiting.

NRDC – It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California

Repost from Natural Resources Defense Council
[Editor: Excellent resources….  Be sure to see the downloadable fact sheet and blast zone maps for Bakersfield, Benicia, Davis, Martinez, Pittsburg, Richmond and Sacramento that follow below this article.  – RS]

It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California

Diane Bailey  |  June 18, 2014

Key Points

  • More crude oil was transported by rail in North America in 2013 than in the past five years combined. Millions of Californians live near crude-by-rail routes and could face extreme safety risks.
  • Federal regulators have few safeguards in place to protect communities and the environment from accidents, spills and explosions resulting from the race to move millions of barrels of crude by rail.
  • NRDC calls on lawmakers to expedite rules mandating commonsense practices, including removal of defective tank cars, rerouting around sensitive areas, and requiring disclosure regarding the content of all shipments and relevant risks to local residents.
  • Nearly four million Bay Area and Central/San Joaquin Valley residents are at increased risk from oil train accidents occurring with the proliferation of new crude by rail terminal proposals. But dangerous crude oil train derailments are preventable if the mandatory safety measures NRDC recommends are enacted.

Soda cans on wheels. That’s what some call the dangerous rail tank cars that have suddenly become ubiquitous across the American landscape. In the rush to transport land-locked unconventional new crude oil sources, old rail lines running through communities across America are now rattling with thousands of cars filled with crude oil. Neither the cars nor the railroads were built for this purpose. Worse, federal regulators have few safeguards in place to protect communities and the environment from accidents, spills and explosions resulting from the race to move millions of barrels of crude by rail.

More crude oil was transported by rail in North America in 2013 than in the past five years combined, most of it extracted from the Bakken shale of North Dakota and Montana. In California, the increase in crude by rail has been particularly dramatic, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to 6 million barrels in 2013. As “rolling pipelines” of more than 100 rail cars haul millions of gallons of crude oil through our communities, derailments, oil spills and explosions are becoming all too common. Between March 2013 and May 2014, there were 12 significant oil train derailments in the United States and Canada. As oil companies profit, communities bear the cost.

Californians Living Near Crude By Rail Routes

A new report from the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group outlines serious vulnerabilities along California rail lines including close proximity to many population centers, numerous earthquake faults, a shortage of adequate emergency response capacity, many areas of vulnerable natural resources, and a number of “high hazard areas” for derailments, which are generally located along waterways and fragile natural resource areas. Millions of Californians live near crude by rail routes and could face extreme safety risks. Currently, there are five major new crude by rail terminals in the planning stages and two recently converted crude oil rail terminals that could collectively bring in up to seven or more mile long trains each day through metropolitan areas like Sacramento, putting up to 3.8 million people in harm’s way.

Explosions and Spills Threaten Lives

“Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a widebody jetliner,” write Russell Gold and Betsy Morris in the Wall Street Journal. In July 2013, an unattended oil train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil from North Dakota exploded in the center of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, near the U.S. border. The resulting inferno killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town center. Some 1.6 million gallons of crude oil was spilled. In the months following this devastating event, several more North American oil train derailments illustrated the sobering recurring public safety and environmental threats of catastrophic derailments due to the virtually unregulated surge in crude by rail. In 2013, rail cars spilled more crude oil than nearly the previous four decades combined (1.14 million gallons in 2013 compared to 800,000 gallons from 1975 to 2012).

Communities Lack Information And Control Over Hazardous Rail Shipments

Municipalities across the country are demanding increased communication about rail shipments of crude oil through their communities. However, crude oil — and other hazardous materials shipped by rail — have been exempted from the disclosure requirement of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). While the federal government finally directed rail companies to disclose this critical information to emergency responders, the general public remains in the dark about the nature of mile long tanker trains hurtling through their backyards at dangerous speed. Nobody has a choice about what gets transported through their community, how dangerous the cargo is, how frequently it goes through or whether it could be rerouted to more remote areas. Of the more than 3.8 million Californians who will be put at risk by proposed new crude by rail terminals, most are unlikely to even be aware of the significant new risks that they face.

Outdated and Dangerous Tank Cars Are Used to Carry Crude

Most of the rail tank cars used to carry flammable liquids, including crude oil are old “DOT-111s,” which are widely known to be unsafe. Speaking at a farewell address at the National Press Club in April 2014, outgoing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairwoman Deborah Hersman repeated a long-held NTSB position that unmodified DOT-111 tank cars — non-pressurized rail tank cars that accident investigators report are easily punctured or ruptured during a derailment — are not safe to carry hazardous liquids. “Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not,” she said.

Thus, in 2009, the NTSB recommended these tank cars be equipped with additional safety features. Since October 2011, new rail tank cars built for transporting crude oil have incorporated these features, such as the use of head shields, thicker tank material, and pressure-relief devices. Yet regulators have not eliminated the use of the older, unmodified DOT-111 cars for carrying oil — out of 39,000 DOT-111 tank cars now used to carry crude, two-thirds still do not meet these modern safety standards. The Department of Transportation, simply recommended that shippers stop using these cars to transport oil, but they do not require it.

Commonsense Safeguards for Crude-by-Rail Are Overdue

In the longer term, our health depends on cleaner, renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels. In the immediate term, we must tighten safety regulations on the rail transport of crude oil, or run the risk of devastating consequences. NRDC calls on lawmakers to expedite rules mandating commonsense practices, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Remove Defective, Dangerous Tankers from Crude by Rail Service: The existing fleet of dangerous DOT-111 tank cars must be taken out of crude oil service immediately.
  2. Impose Safer Speed Limits: Crude oil unit trains must adhere to speed limits that significantly reduce the possibility of an explosion in the event of a derailment.
  3. Reroute Around Sensitive Areas: The National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that crude oil trains avoid heavily populated areas and otherwise sensitive areas must become mandatory.
  4. Require Disclosure: Information regarding the content of all shipments and relevant risks and emergency procedures should be made accessible to local residents.
  5. Provide Emergency Responder Resources: States should assess fees on shippers and carriers to fully cover the costs of providing emergency response services and safeguarding the public from oil trains, and ensure that there is adequate emergency response capacity.
  6. Make Additional Operational Safety and Oversight Improvements: Unit trains of crude oil and other hazardous materials should be placed in the highest risk category of Hazmat shipments; and many other operational improvements should be made. Additional inspections of crude oil trains are also critical, including the funding necessary for more rail safety personnel.
  7. Exercise Local Government Powers:
    • Local governments and states can require cumulative risk analysis of crude oil rail infrastructure and increased rail traffic.
    • Local governments should thoroughly evaluate all of the environmental and public health and safety risks of crude oil rail terminals that require land use permits or other forms of local approval.
    • Local governments should reject any new crude oil rail terminals within one mile of sensitive sites such as homes, schools, daycares, and hospitals.

Crude oil train accidents are preventable. All Californians should be calling for the crude oil and rail safety standards listed here.

Read More…

Fact Sheet (PDF)

portable document format

Maps: Crude Oil Train
Derailment Risk Zones
in California

Bloomberg: Feds announce weak “emergency order”

Repost from Bloomberg Business Week

The Government Takes a Weak Stab at Making Oil Trains Safer

By Matthew Philips  |  May 08, 2014

On Wednesday, a week after a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Va., dumping 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River, the Department of Transportation announced two moves to try to keep this from happening so frequently. It’s doubtful that either will make much of a difference in preventing what’s become a major safety hazard in the U.S.

Under a new “emergency order,” the DOT said it’s now going to require any railroad that ships a large amount of crude to tell state emergency responders what it’s up to. That includes telling them how much crude it’s hauling and the exact route it intends to take. Railroads also now have to provide local emergency responders with contact information of at least one person who’s familiar with the load, in case, you know the local fire chief needs to find out what the heck’s inside that overturned tank car that just unleashed a 400-foot fireball.

This emergency order applies to any train carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude specifically from the Bakken region of North Dakota. That’s essentially all the trains hauling crude across the U.S. right now. Since there aren’t enough pipelines connecting the oil fields in North Dakota, most of the nearly 1 million barrels the state produces leaves every day by train. It takes about 35 tank cars to haul 1 million gallons. Most of these oil trains are 100 cars long and stretch over a mile.

The reason this applies only to Bakken crude is twofold. First, that’s most of what’s being hauled. Second, the oil coming out of the Bakken is unlike any other kind that’s out there. It’s light, sweet, and superflammable, with high levels of propane and methane. That makes it almost impossible for local first responders to put out the fires that erupt when these trains derail. Sometimes, their only recourse is to evacuate the area and watch the tank cars burn.

The amount of oil moving by train each month has risen by nearly 400 percent since 2009Data: American Association of RailroadsThe amount of oil moving by train each month has risen by nearly 400 percent since 2009

On top of the emergency order, the DOT on Wednesday issued a “safety advisory,” in which it “strongly urg[ed]” the oil companies shipping Bakken crude on trains to use the best tank cars they can. This advisory came from the Federal Railroad Administration, a division of DOT. How that differs from the organization’s normal position on safety isn’t clear. But it seems not unlike the FAA, after a rash of plane crashes, “strongly urging” airlines to buy the safest kind of planes they can and stop using old, outclassed ones.

The old, outclassed ones in this case is the DOT-111 model of tank car that’s been involved in most of the crude train explosions, including the one last summer in Quebec that killed 47 people. Although it’s widely deemed unfit for transporting crude, the DOT-111 is used to move the vast majority of oil sent by train in the U.S. It’s also the same classification of tank car that’s used to haul agricultural commodities, such as corn or soybeans.

According to the investment bank Cowen Group, about 100,000 DOT-111 tank cars in the U.S. are used to haul flammables such as crude and ethanol. About three-quarters of them may require retrofitting or a gradual phaseout. While some energy companies, such as Tesoro, are already choosing to phase out DOT-111s in their North Dakota operations, most companies are sticking with them until they’re forced to change. A complicating factor is that it’s not even clear, given how volatile Bakken crude is, whether using safer, better-reinforced cars would even help keep a derailed train from exploding.

The DOT’s safety advisory urging the use of better tank cars is a weaker step than what Canadian regulators did two weeks ago, when they aggressively moved to phase out all DOT-111s from hauling crude within three years. In an e-mail, a DOT spokesperson wrote that the agency is moving as quickly as it can to update its tank car regulations and that the safety advisory is a step it can take immediately. Last week, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx sent to the White House a list of options on how to make crude-by-rail safer.

Philips is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

Wall Street: Bakken Crude Carries Higher Risks

Repost from Wall Street Journal

Bakken Crude Carries Higher Risks

Data Show Oil From North Dakota, Mostly Carried by Rail, Is More Combustible Than Other Types

Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere, a Wall Street Journal analysis found, raising new questions about the safety of shipping such crude by rail across the U.S. –
Federal investigators are trying to determine whether such vapors are responsible for recent extraordinary explosions of oil-filled railcars, including one that killed several dozen people in Canada last summer.The rapid growth of North Dakota crude-oil production—most of it carried by rail—has been at the heart of the U.S. energy boom. The volatility of the crude, however, raises concerns that more dangerous cargo is moving through the U.S. than previously believed.Neither regulators nor the industry fully has come to terms with what needs to be done to improve safety. But debate still rages over whether railcars need to be strengthened, something the energy industry has resisted.”Given the recent derailments and subsequent reaction of the Bakken crude in those incidents, not enough is known about this crude,” said Sarah Feinberg, chief of staff at the U.S. Transportation Department. “That is why it is imperative that the petroleum industry and other stakeholders work with DOT to share data so we can quickly and accurately assess the risks.”The Journal analyzed data that had been collected by the Capline Pipeline in Louisiana, which tested crude from 86 locations world-wide for what is known as vapor pressure. Light, sweet oil from the Bakken Shale had a far higher vapor pressure—making it much more likely to throw off combustible gases—than crude from dozens of other locations.Neither federal law nor industry guidelines require that crude be tested for vapor pressure.  Marathon Petroleum Corp., which operates Capline, declined to elaborate on its operations except to say that crude quality is tested to make sure customers receive what they pay for.

According to the data, oil from North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas had vapor-pressure readings of over 8 pounds per square inch, although Bakken readings reached as high as 9.7 PSI. U.S. refiner Tesoro Corp., a major transporter of Bakken crude to the West Coast, said it regularly has received oil from North Dakota with even more volatile pressure readings—up to 12 PSI.

By comparison, Louisiana Light Sweet from the Gulf of Mexico, had vapor pressure of 3.33 PSI, according to the Capline data.

Federal regulators, who have sought information about vapor pressure and other measures of the flammability and stability of Bakken crude, have said the industry hasn’t provided the data despite pledges to do so.

The industry’s chief lobbying group said it was committed to working with the government but that historically it hadn’t collected the information. The energy industry has resisted the idea that Bakken Shale oil’s high gas level is contributing to oil train explosions, but the American Petroleum Institute is revisiting the question.

David Miller, head of the institute’s standards program, said a panel of experts would develop guidelines for testing crude to ensure it is loaded into railcars with appropriate safety features.

The rapid growth in transporting oil by rail was rocked by several accidents last year. Last summer a train loaded with 72 cars of crude exploded, leveling downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killing 47 people. Later in the year, derailed trains exploded in Alabama and North Dakota, sending giant fireballs into the sky.

Most oil moving by rail comes from the Bakken Shale, where crude production has soared to nearly a million barrels daily at the end of last year from about 300,000 barrels a day in 2010.

The rapid growth in Bakken production has far outpaced the installation of pipelines, which traditionally had been relied on to move oil from wells to refineries. Most shale oil from Texas moves through pipelines, but about 70% of Bakken crude travels by train.

Bakken crude actually is a mixture of oil, ethane, propane and other gaseous liquids, which are commingled far more than in conventional crude. Unlike conventional oil, which sometimes looks like black syrup, Bakken crude tends to be very light.

“You can put it in your gas tank and run it,” said Jason Nick, a product manager at testing-instruments company Ametek Inc. “It smells like gasoline.”

Equipment to remove gases from crude before shipping it can be hard to find in the Bakken. Some Bakken wells are flowing so quickly that companies might not be able to separate the gas from the oil, said Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources. “At a really high flow rate, it is just much more difficult to get complete gas separation,” he said.

There also is a financial benefit to leaving gaseous liquids in the oil, because it gives companies more petroleum to sell, according to Harry Giles, the retired head of quality for the U.S. Energy Department’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The federal government doesn’t spell out who should test crude or how often. Federal regulations simply say that oil must be placed in appropriate railcars.

There are three “packaging groups” for oil, based on the temperatures at which it boils and ignites. But these tests don’t look at how many volatile gases are in the oil, and that is the industry’s challenge, according to Don Ross, senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Without clear guidance, some oil producers simply test their crude once and generate a “material safety data sheet” that includes some broad parameters and characteristics.

Much of the oil industry remains resistant to upgrading the 50,000 railcars that are used to carry crude oil, saying it would be too time consuming and expensive. The problem, they argue, isn’t the cargo but a lack of railroad safety.

—Laura Stevens and Tom McGinty contributed to this article.