Re­jec­tion of oil trains could echo na­tion­wide

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Kur­tis Alexan­der

Beni­cia’s re­jec­tion of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big re­fin­ery in the city was hailed Wed­nes­day by crit­ics of the coun­try’s ex­pand­ing oil-by-rail op­er­a­tions, who hope the flex­ing of lo­cal power will re­ver­ber­ate across the Bay Area and the na­tion.

Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and lo­cal op­po­nents, who for years have ar­gued that Valero’s pro­posal brought the dan­ger of a cat­a­strophic spill or fire, was a last­minute de­ci­sion by U.S. of­fi­cials that Beni­cia’s elected lead­ers — not the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — had the fi­nal say in the mat­ter.

Word of that de­ci­sion ar­rived just be­fore the City Coun­cil, in a unan­i­mous vote late Tues­day, dis­missed Valero’s pro­posal for a new $70 mil­lion rail de­pot along the Car­quinez Strait off In­ter­state 680. Valero had said the project would not only be

safe but bring lo­cal jobs, tax rev­enue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the de­ci­sion and the im­pli­ca­tions it will have across the coun­try,” said Jackie Prange, a staff at­tor­ney for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, one of sev­eral groups op­posed to the project. “This is­sue is live in a num­ber of sites across the coun­try. This is def­i­nitely a de­ci­sion that I think cities in other states will be look­ing to.”

As oil pro­duc­tion has boomed across North Amer­ica, so has the need to send crude via rail­road. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been ac­com­pa­nied by a spate of ac­ci­dents in re­cent years, in­clud­ing a 2013 de­rail­ment in the Que­bec town of Lac-Me­gan­tic in which a 72-car train ex­ploded and killed more than 40 peo­ple.

The author­ity of com­mu­ni­ties to limit oil trains has been clouded by the as­ser­tion of some in the pe­tro­leum in­dus­try that lo­cal of­fi­cials don’t have ju­ris­dic­tion to get in the way. Com­pa­nies like Valero have con­tended that rail­road is­sues are mat­ter of in­ter­state com­merce — and hence are the purview of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Shortly be­fore Tues­day’s meet­ing, how­ever, Beni­cia of­fi­cials re­ceived a let­ter from the U.S. Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a rail­road com­pany and that the pro­posed rail ter­mi­nal fell un­der city ju­ris­dic­tion.

“It’s what I was wait­ing for to help me make my vote more de­fen­si­ble,” said Coun­cil­man Alan Schwartz­man at the meet­ing.

Ear­lier this year, Valero had asked the Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Board for “pre­emp­tion” pro­tec­tion for the project after Beni­cia’s Plan­ning Com­mis­sion re­jected the pro­posal. The plan pro­ceeded to the City Coun­cil upon ap­peal.

The plan called for oil de­liv­er­ies from up to two 50-car trains a day, many pass­ing through sev­eral North­ern Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­ni­ties en route from the Bakken shale for­ma­tion in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 bar­rels of oil.

The com­pany billed the project as a way to keep gaso­line prices low in the ab­sence of a ma­jor oil pipe­line serv­ing the West Coast. Crude is cur­rently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipe­lines.

On Wed­nes­day, Valero of­fi­cials ex­pressed frus­tra­tion at the city’s de­ci­sion.

“After nearly four years of re­view and anal­y­sis by in­de­pen­dent ex­perts and the city, we are dis­ap­pointed that the City Coun­cil mem­bers have cho­sen to re­ject the crude by rail project,” spokes­woman Lil­lian Rio­jas wrote in an email. “At this time we are con­sid­er­ing our op­tions mov­ing for­ward.”

The vote di­rectly hit the city’s pock­et­book. Nearly 25 per­cent of Beni­cia’s bud­get comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city cof­fers stood to grow with more crude. The re­fin­ery em­ploys about 500 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to city records.

But the city’s en­vi­ron­men­tal study showed that oil trains pre­sented a haz­ard. The doc­u­ment con­cluded that an ac­ci­dent was pos­si­ble on the nearly 70 miles of track be­tween Ro­seville (Placer County) and the re­fin­ery, though the like­li­hood was only one event every 111 years.

The doc­u­ment also sug­gested that much of the crude com­ing to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Sev­eral cities in the Bay Area and Sacra­mento area joined en­vi­ron­men­tal groups in call­ing for re­jec­tion of the project.

“The coun­cil’s vote is a tremen­dous vic­tory for the com­mu­nity and com­mu­ni­ties all through­out Cal­i­for­nia,” said Ethan Buckner of the op­po­si­tion group Stand, who was among more than 100 peo­ple who turned out for the coun­cil’s ver­dict. “At a time when oil con­sump­tion in Cal­i­for­nia is go­ing down, projects like this are un­nec­es­sary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil de­liv­ery by rail else­where in the re­gion — in Rich­mond and Pitts­burg. A hand­ful of other pro­pos­als have been put forth in other parts of Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing the ex­pan­sion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 re­fin­ery in San Luis Obispo County, which is sched­uled to be heard by the county plan­ning board Thurs­day.

Prange, with the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, said this week’s find­ing by the Sur­face Trans­porta­tion Board gives cities the con­fi­dence to re­ject the pro­posed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaf­firms the power of lo­cal gov­ern­ment to pro­tect their cit­i­zens from these dan­ger­ous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil de­liv­er­ies by rail have grown quickly, from 20 mil­lion bar­rels in 2010 to 323 mil­lion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates. In re­sponse, fed­eral trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials have worked to im­prove the safety of oil-car­ry­ing cars with new reg­u­la­tions.

But over the past year, rail de­liv­er­ies na­tion­wide have slowed, in part be­cause of the stricter rules as well as lo­cal op­po­si­tion, fall­ing crude prices and new pipe­lines.

Crit­ics have com­plained that the tight­ened rules have fallen short, point­ing to in­ci­dents like a June train de­rail­ment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hun­dreds of thou­sands of gal­lons of crude into the Columbia River. Lead­ers in Ore­gon are dis­cussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Jake Mi­ille / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle 2013

A BNSF train car­ries crude oil from North Dakota to Bak­ers­field in 2013. Oil-by-rail op­er­a­tions have been ex­pand­ing in the U.S.

Si­las Bleak­ley / As­so­ci­ated Press

Tanker train ac­ci­dents like this near Mosier, Ore., in June have raised con­cerns around the coun­try about oil trans­porta­tion.

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