Crude Oil Train Boom Headed to California
Posted March 19, 2014
California’s Senate Committees on Environmental Quality, and Natural Resources and Water are holding a joint hearing on Emergency Response to Rail Accidents today to talk about oil spill response in the event of a crude oil train accident. This is important given the spate of crude oil train accidents over the past year as oil rail transport has boomed, and as California faces the prospect of new oil rail terminals and up to 25% of crude oil coming to this coastal state by rail (see here, here and here).
It’s good to see the state improving oil spill response planning and resources, including the Governor’s proposal to collect fees from oil rail transport for potential clean-ups. But we need the state to do more than just mop up oil spills after accidents. We need a comprehensive review of the public safety implications of all of the new oil terminal proposals before they are built and a focus on human health (in addition to wildlife).
First, does it make sense for the state to invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure like oil rail terminals, when petroleum product use is in decline? A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report predicts at 13 percent drop in gasoline and diesel used in California by 2020 despite a growing population.
Second, if we’re going to bring in crude oil by rail, should we allow new terminals in densely populated areas right next to homes and schools? That is what’s proposed right now, despite National Transportation Safety Board recommendations for crude oil trains to avoid urban areas.
Third, should the state disclose what these crude oil trains are carrying, how much of it, how often they run and exactly which rail routes they take? The public has a right to know when mile long trains filled with hazardous cargo are passing by their front porches.
Fourth, if we have choices about which crude oil we import and refine in California, should we make an effort to avoid the very dirtiest and most dangerous crudes? The California Energy Commission (CEC) and Energy Information Administration report record imports of dirty tar sands to California in recent months.
Fifth, if a rail yard suddenly decides to take 100 car unit trains of crude oil, shouldn’t there be a public process and government oversight to determine whether that is safe and appropriate? Last week a news report revealed that the Kinder Morgan rail terminal in Richmond was quietly permitted by the Bay Area Air District to receive mile long crude oil trains every day without any public disclosure whatsoever. Even the CEC didn’t know about it until a news station broke the story. In the same story, the Air district stated cavalierly that they’re not concerned about this terminal, which happens to be in the middle of Richmond, a city that has endured significant historic and ongoing pollution form the Chevron refinery and other industrial activities.
These questions should be discussed at the rail safety hearing today. It’s easy to dismiss the public concern over crude by rail safety before an accident happens. In fact, the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, may not have been concerned about crude oil trains running through it until the day one derailed, exploded and wiped out the downtown area taking 47 lives last July.
Given that terrible tragedy in Quebec last summer and all the fiery crude oil train derailments since then, the thought of 100 tanker car trains filled with highly volatile, explosion-prone Bakken crude oil going through the densely populated Bay Area ought to give some pause to government authorities. Communities all along crude oil rail routes are waking up to this new reality and they’re concerned.
It’s encouraging to see some steps to address oil rail risks in other regions. Albany, New York just placed a moratorium on the expansion of the processing of crude oil at the Port of Albany pending a public health investigation by the Albany County Health Department. The City of Seattle passed a resolution last week urging adoption of state legislation and federal regulations; state assessment of risks; railroad company restriction of petroleum transport through Seattle; and update of City incident response plans to address the potential safety, environmental, and economic impacts of petroleum transport by rail. Similar efforts are under way in Spokane.
A few weeks ago the Mayor of Benicia called on the Governor to issue an executive order to ensure that the state is prepared to deal with the highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming into California. That would be a great starting place for California to get out ahead of the looming oil by rail safety crisis in this state.
Additional note: Visiting a Southern California rail yard today, watching trains get built, plenty of DOT-111 tanker cars were in the mix.
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