Valero Crude By Rail: What’s next in Benicia?

By Roger Straw, February 19, 2016

2015-06-21 RDS Guerneville indoors (edited, soft, noexit whiteout 350px bdr)Now that the Benicia Planning Commission has rejected Valero’s oil train proposal, most observers expect that Valero will appeal the decision to the City Council.  Valero has until February 29 to appeal.

Speculation is ripe in Benicia and beyond as to the probable outcome of a City Council appeal.  The Council is made up of only 5 members.  Longtime Benicians will offer best guesses as to a likely vote, but no one knows.

City Council members’ votes will come in the context of Planning Commission hearings in which those who spoke out thoughtfully and passionately against Valero’s project far outnumbered Valero supporters.  A unanimous and incredibly popular Planning Commission vote has brought out a great number of expressions of appreciation.  Thanks and congratulations have been pouring in to local opponents of the project and to the Commissioners themselves.  Of course, Council members are in no way bound to honor local opinion, but …

More context: if Valero appeals, the Council will consider the appeal in an election year. Two Council members and the Mayor are up for reelection, and all have announced they will run.  Odds are it will be pretty hard to run a successful campaign in Benicia if you have voted in favor of Valero’s dangerous and dirty crude oil trains.

A few have speculated that Valero might prefer to NOT appeal the Planning Commission decision.  Valero’s strategy might be to remove the controversial issue from electoral politics, and hope for a more favorable City Council election outcome in November that would seat a pro-Valero Council.  Valero could then make a new run at the Planning Commission in 2017.  This would of course require a whole new EIR costing Valero a lot of money.  But other factors, including the low price of oil in current markets and the surging regional and national opposition to crude by rail, could swing Valero in this direction.

We should know by February 29.  Meanwhile …

Many have raised questions about the City’s procedures if/when Valero appeals the decision to the City Council.

On Feb. 14, I wrote to Benicia Principle Planner Amy Million, City Clerk Lisa Wolfe and Planning Commission Chair Don Dean, asking the following questions. (Ms. Million’s Feb. 17 answers follow in italics.)

  1. During the CEQA review, you carefully logged our letters for the public record. Anticipating that Valero will appeal, residents will continue to be on alert, and will want to communicate with Council members. Should letters on the issue still be sent to you? Or maybe to the City Clerk?  Million: Letters regarding the project should still be sent to me for inclusion in the project file, etc.
  2. The vote on the FEIR was to NOT certify, but the Commission avoided using the language of remanding the document for further study and recirculation. Is the CEQA process done now, or does it continue – for the public record – during the preparation of findings, and after that, during a Council appeal? Million: If the Planning Commission decision is appealed to City Council, the Council will consider both the denial of the use permit and the decision to not certify the EIR based on the deficiencies identified by the Commission.
  3. Will you or the City Clerk continue to send notices on the process to those of us who signed up for email notification? I’d like to see the Commission findings as soon as they are finalized, and I would assume they will be posted to the Community Development’s CBR page. But beyond that, will updates be posted timely there, or maybe somewhere else?  Million: The Community Development Department will continue to maintain the CBR webpage. We will provide a copy of the resolution when it is available.