Crude oil is not normally considered explosive. But lighter crude from the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota, suddenly being shipped through the East Bay, is entirely different.
It contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis. Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s hazardous materials chief, considers it as explosive as gasoline.
In Quebec last summer, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, exploded and killed 47 people. Subsequently, derailed trains in Alabama and North Dakota exploded.
“Given the recent derailments and subsequent reaction of the Bakken crude in those incidents, not enough is known about this crude,” Sarah Feinberg, chief of staff at the U.S. Transportation Department, told the Journal.
Yet, long trains carrying the volatile cargo started traveling through the East Bay last year. This calls for aggressive oversight from Martinez to Sacramento to Washington — before we have a disaster on our hands.
According to the governor’s office, rail shipments of oil into the state, including Bakken crude, are expected to increase from 3 million barrels to approximately 150 million barrels per year by 2016.
Kinder Morgan is unloading some of that cargo in Richmond, just blocks from an elementary school and the Point Richmond and Atchison Village neighborhoods, and transferring it to tanker trucks.
At least some of it is going to Tesoro Refinery near Martinez, according to Sawyer and a report by KPIX Channel 5. Tesoro — which recently demonstrated its lack of candor after two acid spills that sent four workers to hospitals — refuses to say whether it’s processing Bakken crude.
The implications are profound. The notion of transporting massive quantities of highly combustible crude through local neighborhoods should alarm the federal Department of Transportation, which regulates rail shipping.
The long trains are going right through the districts of Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa. They must demand answers from the administration about why it allows this to proceed when so little is known.
At the local level, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors must examine the adequacy of the county’s Industrial Safety Ordinance to make sure it can ensure that Tesoro and any other refinery that uses Bakken crude has taken adequate precautions.
Sawyer, the county’s environmental hazards chief, didn’t even know Bakken fuel was coming into the county until he saw recent press reports. Clearly the system is broken.
[Editor’s note] This SF Chronicle report includes a short video interview with Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson. Unfortunately, the interview is preceded by advertising, and can’t be set to manual play – so I will not embed it here. After reading the text here, click on the link above to see the video on SFGate. The text here very nicely places Valero’s proposal in a wider Bay Area and California context, and then lays out some startling numbers. Worth the read!
Is California prepared for a domestic oil boom?
Published Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The North Dakota oil boom has resulted in more trains going boom. At least 10 trains hauling crude oil from the Bakken Shale across North America have derailed and spilled, often setting off explosions. The deadliest killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013. As California refineries seek to adapt their operations to bring in Bakken crude by rail, Bay Area residents in refinery towns want to know: Will they be safe?
In Solano County, Benicia residents packed a Planning Commission meeting when Valero Refining Co. unveiled a plan to adapt its Benicia refinery to receive crude by rail rather than by ship. In Contra Costa County, Pittsburg residents (as well as state Attorney General Kamala Harris) are concerned about a proposal by West Pac Energy to convert a closed tank farm to an oil storage and transfer facility. Similar worries are voiced in Crockett and Rodeo about a proposed propane and butane project at the Phillips 66 refinery.
Air pollution is the top-line concern for these communities, followed by fear of spills and explosions. Some protests are tied to the larger political debate over importing tar sands oil from Canada.
The refinery operators maintain they are merely trading ship transport for rail transport or upgrading aging facilities.
We do know this: The tangle of laws and agencies that oversee rail transport make it easy to assign blame to someone else and tough to hold any one agency or business accountable. Rail oversight is primarily the federal government’s job, which makes sense for an industry with track in every state. While the state handles pollution, some safety inspections and emergency response, it is unclear how much legal authority it or any other state government has. The Obama administration announced some voluntary safety measures Friday that would slow trains in cities, increase track inspections and beef up emergency response. There’s still work to do be done sorting out who would enforce such rules.
We need to know how theses railroads will run safely before more Bakken crude comes in by rail.
More crude riding the rails
85-fold – the increase in the amount of crude oil transported on U.S. railroads since 2006, from 4,700 carloads to 400,000 carloads in 2013, according to a rail industry regulatory filing.
135 times – the increase in the amount of crude transported by rail in California since 2009, from 45,491 barrels in 2009 to 6,169,264 barrels in 2013, according to the California Energy Commission.
1 percent – the portion of crude oil transported into California by rail (most comes by ship). This is projected to increase as more refineries adapt to bring in Bakken crude by rail.
73 degrees Fahrenheit – the flash point of Bakken crude, a lighter oil that contains more volatile organic compounds than other crude oils, as compared with 95 degrees Fahrenheit. “Crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil,” reported the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A forum about increased rail accidents, refinery dangers, and climate change. How will refinery expansions and transportation of crude oil by rail affect YOUR town?
A panel of experts and activists will inform residents of Benicia, Martinez, Rodeo, Crockett and Port Costa of Big Oil’s plans, both local and global.
Wednesday, Feb. 26th at 6:30 PM Veterans War Memorial Building, 930 Ward Street, Martinez
(@ the corner of Ward and Court Streets)
Please join our panelists for presentations and Q & A:
Marilaine Savard: spokesperson for a citizens’ group in the region of Lac-Mégantic, Québec. Last year, a string of exploding petroleum rail cars destroyed the center of the town and claimed 47 lives.
Antonia Juhasz: oil industry analyst, journalist, and author of “The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must do to Stop It” and “Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill”.
Sponsored by:In partnership with:
Sierra Club, 350 Bay Area, Communities for a Better Environment, Richmond Progressive Alliance, ForestEthics, Pittsburg Defense Council, Pittsburg Ethics Council, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, and the Crockett-Rodeo-Hercules Working Group.
Bay Area Residents Resist Crude-by-Rail as Accidents Rise
Molly Samuel, KQED Science | February 17, 2014
The city of Pittsburg, 20 miles east of Oakland, is considering approving a new oil terminal to supply crude to Bay Area refineries. The oil would come via ship, pipeline and railroad. But there have been a number of recent accidents around the United States involving rail shipments of crude oil, and some locals are concerned about the safety of the project.
‘A Dynamite Factory in Our Backyard’
On a Saturday morning in January, about 150 people gathered at a playground in Pittsburg. Greg Osorio, a local pastor stepped up to a microphone and got the rally started.
“They want to put a dynamite factory in our backyard with crude oil bombs,” he said. “Right next to housing. Turn around and look at that.”
A cluster of faded yellow metal oil tanks sit just behind the park. Each one is the size of a house. Right now they’re empty, and have been for 15 years. But they soon could be filled with crude oil.
Riding the Crude-by-Rail Boom
WesPac, an Irvine-based company, is proposing to re-open and upgrade the tanks. The property, which includes a power plant that’s still in use, once belonged to PG&E and is now owned by an energy company called NRG. WesPac wants to take over the tanks to bring in oil, store it and redistribute it to Bay Area refineries to make into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products. The $200 million project would be able to store up to 375,000 barrels of oil in 17 tanks.
“It’s consistent with the types of operations that are going on in that area already,” said Art Diefenbach, the project manager for WesPac. This is an existing facility in a traditionally industrial town, he says, so the project makes sense here. After the tanks were decommissioned, neighborhoods grew up around them, but Diefenbach says that won’t present a problem.
“We’ll be installing additional safety equipment and noise reduction equipment and air pollution control equipment so that it’s actually going to be better than it is today,” he said.
Better, he means, than sitting empty. Plus, the project would create up to 40 permanent jobs, though those wouldn’t be guaranteed to Pittsburg residents.
But community members aren’t just concerned about the oil in the tanks; they’re also concerned about the trains that would deliver it.
In 2008, there was no oil coming into California by rail. Last year in December alone, trains carried more than a million barrels into the state.
“The problem that we have is, there’s not a terribly good infrastructure to get oil to the coasts where most of the refining and frankly most of the customers are, for that energy, located,” he said.
Without pipelines, oil companies are turning to trains. While crude delivered by rail accounts for a little less than two percent of all the oil California uses now, that may be changing. WesPac is one of six crude-by-rail projects being considered in the state. If they all get approved, rail could provide a quarter or more of California’s oil, according to the California Energy Commission.
More Trains, More Accidents
But more crude-by-rail has led to more crude-by-rail accidents. Last summer in Quebec, 47 people died when an oil train exploded. In the past four months, there have been derailments in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Alabama and New Brunswick, Canada.
Pittsburg is a city that’s weathered industrial catastrophes before. In 1944, 320 people were killed when two Navy munitions ships in nearby Port Chicago exploded.
Andres Soto says he thinks oil companies aren’t being transparent about safety concerns.
“They don’t want to admit the risk,” he said. “Because if they did, the community would say, ‘Not in my backyard.’ And the people have a right to say that.”
There have been some responses: The National Transportation Safety Board is making recommendations to improve crude-by-rail safety; Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposal boosts funding for the agency that cleans up oil spills; Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote a letter to the Pittsburg planning department, expressing her concerns about the WesPac project, particularly the impacts on air quality and the risk of accidents.
Tupper Hull says the companies he works with are aware of the safety concerns, and he expects there will be more regulations.
“We’re in one of these eras where the market has brought us good news, and now we’re catching up on the regulatory and the infrastructure side.” Good news, he said, because this is domestic oil—rather than from overseas—and it’s cheap.
Lyana Monterrey, a Pittsburg resident and one of the people leading the charge against the project, isn’t buying it.
“Not here,” she said. “Not next to a community. You don’t sacrifice people, community for your profits. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.”
The city of Pittsburg is currently considering the project. The city council is expected to decide on its fate soon.