Senator Wolk Calls for Greater State Oversight of Crude Oil By Rail

LoisWolkHeadshot_2012WB-665Last week, Senator Lois Wolk called on legislators to support a proposal to strengthen the state’s railroad safety inspection force, in light of the growing volume of crude oil shipments through heavily populated areas of California and numerous crude oil rail accidents in recent years.

The letter was sent in advance of the scheduled June 10 release of a draft Environmental Impact Report on a proposal to transport crude oil through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the City of Benicia, which Senator Wolk represents.

Rail shipments of crude oil in California, like those proposed by Valero, are slated to increase 25-fold in the next few years, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission.

In her letter to Budget Conference Committee members, she writes, “I urge you to support the Governor’s budget provisions to add seven inspectors to the railroad safety staff of the California Public Utilities Commission.”

“If funded, these federally-certified inspectors will not only enforce critical federal and state safety regulations addressing railroad track, bridges, tank cars, locomotives, and hazardous material shipping practices, but will also hold the railroads accountable for complying with the Federal Railroad Emergency Orders and the voluntary safety agreements the railroads have made with the U.S. Department of Transportation following recent Canadian and U.S. crude oil train explosions.”

The Senator wrote, “On February 24, 2014, the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee held an informational hearing titled ‘Safe Rail Transport of Crude Oil: What’s on the Horizon and Are We Prepared?’ Information presented in that hearing revealed that California is slated to see a 25-fold increase in crude oil shipped by rail within the next few years, and that this increase in traffic will pass through many highly populated areas in our state.”

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” the Senator added in a letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee, scheduled to hear Governor Edmund G. Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the CPUC’s railroad safety staff. “Additional oversight is needed to provide some assurance that these shipments are made safely and in compliance with federal and state regulations, as well as other known safety practices.”

Several destructive crude oil rail accidents have taken place in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, including the July 2013 derailment of 72 tanker cars loaded with 2 million gallons of flammable crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that resulted in 47 deaths, over $1 billion in damages, and 1.5 million gallons of spilled crude oil.

Valero’s proposal has elicited concern from public and elected officials regarding the safety risks of transporting crude oil through Benicia and other densely populated areas of Northern California. Other concerns include the potential for increased commuter traffic.

“An event such as Lac-Mégantic could have catastrophic effects if it occurred in any populated area of California,” Senator Wolk said.

Back in early February, Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk wrote Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson “to express my and my constituents’ serious concerns over the proposed upgrading of the rail terminal at the Valero refinery to take in as much as 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day.  I should make clear that I am writing this as an individual Councilmember; I am not speaking for the City Council or the City of Davis.”

He wrote, “The proposed upgrade would substantially increase the amount of crude oil passing through our community and others along the rail line each day, with much of that oil coming from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.  This oil appears to be more explosive, as demonstrated by the tragic accident in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year which killed 47 people when a train carrying such oil derailed.”

The Davis City Council has been concerned about the issue of crude oil transported through the Davis Community but has been limited in its ability to address the issue.

Valero is proposing the “Crude by Rail Project” which would allow the refinery to receive a larger proportion of its crude oil deliveries by railcar.

The Land Use Permit Application states,  ”The primary purpose of the Project is to allow Valero access to more North American sourced crudes that have recently become available. The only viable option for transporting the crude oil from the North American sources to the Refinery is by railroad. Therefore, the objective of this Project is to enable Valero to replace up to 70,000 bbl per day of the crude oil currently supplied to the Benicia Refinery by marine vessel with an equivalent amount of crude oil transported by rail cars.”

The City of Davis has put forward a resolution whereby the City of Davis would oppose crude by rail transport through our community due to public safety concerns until further consideration, including understanding of risks and needed mitigation measures.

However, despite unanimous support from council, concerns were expressed by councilmembers, such as Brett Lee, that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open-ended to have the impact they were hoping for.

As he put it, “Do you really think the railroad is going to stop transporting oil on the railroad line because the Davis City Council says we don’t want it passing through our community?”

He continued, “I think a more effective way would be to focus on the safety aspects so that our community is protected and other communities are protected.”  Councilmember Lee clarified that he was not in favor of these cars coming through our community, and went on to say that he did not believe that having a symbolic gesture “excuses us or take us off the hook for dealing with the public safety issue.”

City staff wrote, “Mitigating the impacts of transporting crude and other commodities by rail has been a challenge, as the railroads and other entities involved in the transport of crude claim they are subject to federal law but not to California law. They are asserting federal pre-emption and arguing that other agencies have no authority to mitigate their impacts.”

Ultimately, Mayor Krovoza put forth a motion, that was seconded by Lee, which directed staff to begin preparation of a resolution whereby the City of Davis would oppose crude by rail transport through our community due to public safety concerns until further consideration, including understanding of risks and needed mitigation measures.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 Comments

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      This is actually not true. The Keystone XL is not designed to carry the crude oil now being carried by rail. Keystone would move “less-volatile, diluted bitumen from landlocked Alberta on its way to the refining hub and export terminals of Houston.”

      There are, unfortunately, no plans to build a crude pipeline from the Bakken Shale to the West Coast. Yet it is to the refineries on the coasts, east and west, that the oil producers want to ship that crude, because that is where they can get the best prices. The oil is not needed in Texas or the Gulf Coast.

      See: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20140117/does-keystone-xl-have-place-oil-rail-safety-debate

    2. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      I should note, however, that I am all for building more pipelines. Each method of transport has its risks and problems. But pipelines make more sense, largely because they can be routed away from population centers. It’s also true that moving oil by pipeline is cheaper (about a third as much) than by rail. However, rail is much faster.

    3. Alan Miller

      Frank Lee, that isn’t factually correct. The Keystone proposal goes from Canada to the Gulf Coast for the purpose of transporting tar sands. I do agree with what I believe your basic premise is, that building a pipeline for transporting the oil would be safer than transporting by rail . . . and by extension I would say many of those protesting the oil trains would also fight a pipeline. While I support the reduction of oil consumption as wise global policy, trying to do this by restricting a safer transport method is insane as long as the demand itself has not been reduced. This will lead to more occasional fiery deaths. Unfortunately, I have heard of no plans to build a pipeline East-West — the lead time and related environmental hurdles could put the completion out past a time when the refineries believe it is worth investing in such a long-term costly capital project. One of the advantages of shipping oil by rail in oil industry eyes is the flexibility in destinations as markets change. This does not bode well for construction of a pipeline from east to west.

      1. Davis Progressive

        looks like frankly got schooled and ducked the discussion. i’m not in favor of pipelines or rail car transport. i think we need to move away from oil based transportation.

        1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

          DP, not moving oil by rail or by pipeline DOES NOTHING to help us “move away from oil based transportation.”

          Given that reality, we need to consider what is our best option for safely transporting crude.

          1. Davis Progressive

            my point is to focus our energy on moving away from oil not facilitating its transport.

          2. Don Shor

            Hm. How do you propose that all the goods that you buy get to the stores that you buy them from? How do you plan to travel from place to place? What exactly is your timeline and strategy for all of this?

          3. Alan Miller

            “Given that reality,” I don’t think ultra-left idealists are much interested in reality.

  1. Pingback: Sen. Lois Wolk calls for stronger safety inspection regulations | The Benicia Independent

  2. Tia Will

    “Oh the problems with Democrat environmental politics.”

    I would think that the safety of our communities would be an issue that anyone could agree would trump partisan politics, environmental or economic.

  3. Frankly

    my point is to focus our energy on moving away from oil not facilitating its transport.

    Thanks for being yourself DP. I appreciate the honesty. So many with your views try to claim they hold some reasonable middle ground.

    The truth is that a lot of liberal progressives believe we can slow or stop climate change with government policy that blocks, impedes, or even stops the exploration, production, refinement and sale of traditional fossil fuel energy sources. Either they believe that we can do this without too costly consequences, or else they don’t care… believing they hold some superior moral and/or environmental high ground. Or, they believe the damage caused to human economic well-being is the lower cost consequence compared to less extreme restrictions on man-made carbon emissions. Or lastly, they see climate change and their opportunity to push a socialist-collectivist system worldview… one that better suits their wiring for how they can acquire wealth (compared to the democratic capitalist system the world economy relies on today).

    First, I do not believe the fatalist projections for climate change impacts. Related to that, I think we are more likely to be undone by natural disasters before man-made climate change impacts . Second, I reject a nation and world where more wealth is directed to the technocrats and politicos instead of the free market producers. Third, I KNOW we are not ready with adequate alternative energy sources… and forcing the elimination of traditional energy sources before there are reasonable alternatives is more than reckless. Forth, we are already moving toward lower fossil fuel consumption. There is no need for your Party tactics to try to accelerate by blocking the use of traditional energy… it will not help speed things up. It will not have any measurable impact on global climate change. It will only cause pain to many people only to make you and other liberal progressives feel good about themselves. That is really not cool.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i believe we have responsibility to future generations. i’m not saying we ban the internal combustion engine, but rather we put our technological thrust into developing better fuel sources. so really, most of your post is crap.

      1. tribeUSA

        I like to spar with Frankly; but disagree with DP’s description of Frankly’s post. It is inevitable that fossill fuels will continue to increase in price until they are no longer practical as the main fuel/energy source of civilization; but right now there is no viable alternative that is economiical–the wean away from fossil fuels must be slow; as it is taking much ingenuity and time to come up with alternative energy sources on the scale of fossil fuels–wind and photovoltaics are now economical in many areas, and appear likely to be capable of supplying a large fraction of the world energy supply (they are a small fraction now) within a couple of decades; but not most of the energy neededl even within a couple of decades. We need the fossil fuels in the transitional period over the next 3-4 decades or so! If you want to do something about this; get your PhD in physics and devote your life (as many brilliant scientists have) to finding a way to get cold fusion (or even hot fusion) to work in a practical manner; or a way to design nuclear fission reactors that are fool-proof and terrorist proof and that generate only very small volumes of dangerous radioactive waste, or come up with another way that will actually provide the world population with the energy it needs to survive in a practical manner–your Nobel prize should be guaranteed!

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