Town of Lac Megantic Burning After Crude-by-Rail Accident, July 2013 (Image Credit: Wikipedia

In the past few months it has been revealed that trains transporting heavy crude oil from North Dakota and Canada are in our midst. Much of this new crude is from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, which is more explosive than other fuels and has been responsible for several recent disastrous accidents. Troublingly, California state and regional officials seem alternatively caught unaware or unconcerned about the increased so-called crude-by-rail traffic.  Fortunately, local officials, concerned citizens, and some media have started calling attention to the dangers and pushing back.

Several proposed off-loading terminals and oil-refinery expansion projects in California promise to increase the use of fracked volatile oil from North Dakota and elsewhere.  The rail routes pass through Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland in northern California and Los Angeles and Long Beach in southern California — all areas with large populations.  Four of the five Northern California oil refineries are in Contra Costa county, and communities there are facing the prospect of new and expanded facilities.

When asked by CBS San Francisco (KPIX 5) about heavy crude being shipped by rail and unloaded onto trucks, Gorden Schremp from the California Energy Commission responded, “At this point we don’t have any of those facilities operating in California.”

If the consequences of such blatant ignorance or negligence wasn’t so dire, this would be laughable. Schremp was later forced to amend his statement when shown evidence of what is already happening on the ground.

What does the increased crude-by-rail traffic mean for communities on the front lines?

1)First, it means that communities are at increased risk for accidents. Fracked oil from North Dakota is more volatile, and catches fire and explodes much more easily. Last year alone, more crude oil spilled from train accidents across the nation than the previous 40 years.

In 2008, fewer than 10,000 cars of heavy crude were being transporting by rail. Last year the number was 400,000 cars, by industries own numbers. “Every time you have increased traffic there’s an increased risk,” said Paul King with the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency that oversees the inspection of railroads.

Last July, a train carrying heavy Bakken crude derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling over 30 buildings in the town’s center. In December, a mile-long train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of the town of Casselton. The most recent accident in April involved the derailment of several CSX tanker cars carrying Bakken crude oil in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, threatening drinking water supplies. Federal and state regulations simply haven’t caught up to the increased traffic and the more volatile fuel that is being transported.

In December, three rail cars carrying petroleum coke derailed as they were leaving Valero’s Benicia Refinery, the same facility that is proposing expanding to increase its crude oil capacity.

bnsfoilDespite assurances by the oil & rail industry of their safety record, some recognize many of the rail cars (DOT-111A) are not equipped to carry heavy crude safely.  The Chairman of BNSF Railway Company (owner of the trains in the Casselton accident) said this week that “Without focus on the elements of safety, the social license to haul crude by rail will disappear, to say nothing of the regulatory agencies’ response.” Even billionaire Harold Hamm, head of oil company Continental Resources and ‘godfather’ of oil boom in North Dakota, admitted that just one more accident would be enough to put the brakes on Bakken oil development.

In addition to the safety issues of transporting heavier crudes by rail, the existing pipeline infrastructure leaves much to be desired — just last year, over 5 million gallons were spilled in over 400 incidents. Pipelines moving heavy crudes at high temperatures through California have had significantly higher spill rates than pipelines moving conventional oil. In March 2013, thousands of barrels of crude from the Canadian tar sands spilled from an ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, resulting in putrid smells, families being evacuated from their homes, and reports of air pollution and water contamination. Athabascan crude (tar sands bitumen) is very thick, making it very difficult to clean up properly. And just last week, about 10,000 gallons of Californian heavy crude spilled into the streets of Los Angeles.

2)Second, increased crude-by-rail means increased air pollution in communities already bearing a heavy pollution burden.  Refining heavier crude creates more pollution, including volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter than conventional crude. In Benicia, CA, Valero Energy Corporation foresees off-loading crude oil from one hundred rail cars every day.  In addition to the pollution from refining itself, each car would require connect-disconnect operations that will increase toxic vapor emissions. On top of this, increased rail traffic often results in more auto congestion, as cars and trucks wait for trains to pass by. Traffic back-ups pose problems for emergency response vehicles and the idling vehicles in turn increase tailpipe emissions, contributing to poor air quality.

3)Finally, it ultimately means more carbon in the atmosphere. Heavier crude oil equals higher greenhouse gas emissions. The fact we are talking about this issue at all is a symptom that we are still very much addicted to dirty fuels — it should be yet another signal that we need to shift as much attention and resources towards transition to clean energy economy.

At the end of the day, any one of these three consequences should give pause to any community through which the product is being trafficked. Combined, they spell WRONG DIRECTION.

California has already seen twice as much crude oil this year as it did in the first quarter of last year. And with rail traffic of volatile crude expected to increase 25-fold in California over the next two years, it seems we should all be standing up and questioning this growing trend. Do we want this to be the new normal?

Fortunately, communities are waking up and taking action.

Across California, citizens have been coming to city council meetings, writing letters, commenting on environmental impact reports, and organizing informational events and healing walks.

Marlaine Savard, one of the citizen survivors from the Lac-Megantic tragedy, conducted a week-long speaking tour in March throughout the Bay Area, highlighting the dangers crude-by-rail poses.

In Pittsburg, CA, the plan for a massive oil terminal proposed by WesPac Energy Group hit a snag after engaged citizens vocalized their concerns. In February, after six months of fighting to STOP WESPAC, residents and supporters got a break. Mayor Salvatore Evola announced that the City had sent a letter to WesPac addressed to the Project Manager, informing that city planned to re-open a new public review and comment period for portions of the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR).  Residents and supporters are yet to see a response from WesPac’s management. No news is good news! Even the Pittsburg school district trustees took a stand against the proposed oil storage project.

In May, at the Crowne Plaza in Concord, Central Committee of Democratic Party of Contra Costa County re-affirmed the a resolution opposing the proposed WesPac Project “as unequivocally contrary to public health and safety and beyond mitigation, and declare that it should not be placed within Pittsburg nor anywhere in Contra Costa County.”

The increased attention here and across the nation about the dangers prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) to act. Earlier this month, U.S. DOT issued an Emergency Order requiring all railroads operating trains containing large amounts of Bakken crude oil to notify State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) about the operation of these trains through their states. Perhaps it’s a good first step.

Meanwhile, because of pressure from citizens, Berkeley and Richmond city councils unanimously passed resolutions opposing crude-by-rail shipments through their jurisdictions. However, local actions like this may remain largely symbolic, as federal law trumps local regulation.

Yet, every act of resistance and engagement plants a seed and highlights an issue that needs to see more daylight.


Upcoming Opportunities for Engagement:

May 22: San Francisco Port and Fossil Fuels Discussion

The Chair of the SF Environment Commission has initiated a discussion about working with the Port of San Francisco to develop a policy prohibiting the transportation and export of hazardous fossil fuel materials such as coal, crude oil, and petroleum coke. Residents of San Francisco can show their support at City Hall today at 5pm, when the Policy Committee meets.

May 31:  Protest the Permit

The Bay Area Air Quality District (BAAQD) issued a permit to Kinder Morgan to operate to a crude-by-rail project in Richmond, without public input or opportunity for public comment.

June 7: Benicia Toxics Tour

Sponsored by Benicians For A Safe and Healthy Community.  Join Marilyn Bardet to learn about environmental quality in Benicia and the added risks of Crude By Rail.  The tour will be by car, with stops at strategically chosen spots where informal discussion will take place.  Meet at the Clocktower.  Limit is 25-30 people: please RSVP to

June 10: Draft EIR Release Public Comment period for Valero Benicia Refinery project begins.

Take Action to make your views known.  To become more informed, check out Safe Benicia’s Learn More page, and visit The Benicia Independent.

June 14: Connect the Dots Healing Walk between different Bay Area big oil towns

Walk/Ride from Benicia to Rodeo, June 14.  More info here.