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Diane Bailey’s Blog

Valero's Crude by Rail Project in Benicia Could Open the Floodgates to Tar Sands in California

Diane Bailey

Posted July 2, 2013

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Dilbit – diluted bitumen - is a word that you should add to your vocabulary because it may be coming soon by the railcar full to a refinery near you.  Is it a cartoon character? A mis-typed tool?  An herb? A curse?  Well, it may be close to the latter because it is the dirtiest, most dangerous type of crude oil that could possibly be brought to California refineries, yet it is about to come flooding in by hundreds of thousands of barrels.tanker cars.jpg

Several California refineries are considering or developing “Crude by Rail” projects that could bring in tar sands-based dilbit crudes.  Yesterday marked the deadline for public comments on Valero’s “Crude by Rail” proposal at its Benicia refinery, which is slated to bring in 70,000 barrels per day – or four 50 rail car trainloads each day – of “North American” Crude (See NRDC comments here).  Why are they so cagey about the specific origin and type of crude oil that they’ll import?  Experts advise us (see this report and this one) that this project is highly likely to deliver tar sands diluted with other chemicals to form dilbit, which could have staggering impacts on the community of Benicia and the entire Bay Area. 

They have gone to great lengths to make this project look benign, claiming that the refinery doesn’t need any modifications, saying the new crude will be a lot like the old crude, and that the rail project as designed wouldn’t be suitable to carry tar sands anyway.  Well, that may be partially true technically, but it’s completely misleading. 

Valero applied for a permit to make major adjustments to the refinery in 2002 - for the past 11 years, they have made modifications, including increasing coking capacity and building a new hydrogen plant that will allow it to process much dirtier crude oil.  As for their claim that they cannot move tar sands by rail without specially heated railcars and offloading equipment-- that’s true, but by adding chemicals to dilute tar sands bitumen, they create dilbit, which flows like regular oil and can be transported in regular rail tanker cars.  

Here are seven reasons why refining increased volumes of Western Canadian diluted bitumen (tar sands) products, through Valero’s Crude by Rail project will be a disaster for air quality, public health, safety and the local ecology:

  1. Increases Benzene and Air Toxics: The “diluent” used to make heavy bitumen or tar sands flow into and out of railcars contains highly volatile organic chemicals, including extremely toxic ones like benzene, at much higher concentrations than conventional crude oil; and is likely to be released during transport and refining.
  2. Increases Lead and Toxic Heavy Metals: The heavy bitumen component of the tar sands oil contains many toxic constituents including heavy metals such as lead at much higher concentrations than conventional crude oil and which are likely to be released during the refining process. 
  3. Increases Smog and Soot: Dilbit may appear similar to lighter crude oil in some ways, but as soon as it hits a refinery, the volatile diluent comes right off as vapor leaving the dense bitumen behind. The heavy bitumen is much more energy intensive to refine than conventional crude.  Due to the composition of heavier, longer chain hydrocarbons, these denser crude oils require greater use of heaters, boilers, hydro-treating and cracking and greater hydrogen use, all of which creates greater emissions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants and toxic chemicals.
  4. Creates an odor problem: Dilbit is associated with greater levels of strong odors due to its composition including a variety of sulfur containing compounds, such as mercaptans, at higher levels.
  5. Leaves More Toxic Coke Behind: Refining of heavy bitumen or tar sands leads to increased coke production, which in itself is a hazardous compound leading to storage and disposal issues including the potential for coke dust from storage piles to impact nearby residents, as has been documented near the Marathon refinery in Detroit, Michigan.
  6. Increases Risk of Accidents: Dilbit is more corrosive than conventional crude oil, increasing the risk of refinery accidents similar to the August 6, 2012 fire at Chevron Richmond, for which lower quality crude oil was found to be a contributing factor.
  7. Dilbit Spills Threaten Our Environment: Rail car spills of dilbit would be catastrophic to the fragile San Francisco Bay Delta.  This is because the diluent – typically natural gas condensates acting as a solvent - helps the oil spread on surface waters. The diluent typically evaporates leaving the very heavy bitumen to sink, creating an exceptionally difficult and expensive clean-up.  This was found to be the case in Kalamazoo, Michigan after a 2010 pipeline ruptured, releasing bitumen and causing well documented and widespread public health impacts and lasting contamination to this day (three years later).


The Valero Crude by Rail project has a host of other problems like increased noise from industrial rail including train horns and local traffic delays including potential delays to emergency responders.  It would also challenge California’s ability to meet its goals to address climate change, as dilbits are much more energy intensive to refine.   Of most concern is that this project would open the floodgates to the dirtiest, most dangerous crude oils – Western Canadian diluted bitumen (tar sands) –  coming into California with irreversible and grave impacts.

Many people are aware that tar sands production in Canada is one of the most environmentally destructive practices in the world, but they may not know that the damage is not just confined to where it’s being extracted.  Communities around refineries – in this case, Benicia – may suddenly get stuck with serious impacts to their quality of life if projects like this go forward.

This project is sailing through with little attention to the fact that it marks a major shift in the way we make our transportation fuels, putting the state in peril and creating a barrier towards improved air quality, public health and safety.  The City of Benicia will hold just one hearing on this project on July 11th at the City Council chambers.  Please come and voice your concern or write to the City Council about the dangers of importing tar sands:


City of Benicia

Attn: Amy Million

250 East L Street

Benicia, CA 94510

Fax: (707) 747-1637 

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