California Takes Legislative Steps to Address Growing Crude-by-Rail Shipments

While regulated on the federal level, there is still much that can be done on a state level, including adding per-barrel fees to pay for cleanup plans. Plus, a new regulation took effect requiring railroads to notify states about Bakken crude trains.

2 minute read

June 10, 2014, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

"Oil imports by rail account for just about 1% of total shipments to California refineries," writes Marc Lifsher, Sacramento-based business reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "Most of the crude arrives by ship or by pipelines from in-state production fields." However, that was an 800% increase over the prior year, and the amount is expected to surge.
While the oil trains pose an 'imminent hazard" to all communities adjacent to train tracks carrying crude from the Bakken field (see new federal regulation below), some communities are more exposed than others.
The threat to California communities is particularly dire, environmental justice groups contend, because many of the state's busiest rail lines run through densely populated areas, and refineries often are in low-income neighborhoods, such as Wilmington in southern Los Angeles County and Richmond in Northern California's Contra Costa County.
California's policy makers have taken notice and are addressing the safety issues associated with oil transport by rail (crude-by-rail)
  • As part of his annual budget, Gov. (Jerry) Brown wants to expand an existing prevention-and-response program for ocean oil spills to cover inland areas.The initiative would be funded by a proposed 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee on all crude oil delivered by rail to refineries. Additionally, Brown is asking lawmakers to approve hiring new track inspectors.
  • Separately, state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) last week steered a similar spill-response measure, SB 1319 (May 28 legislative analysis), through the state Senate, winning approval on a 23-11 vote. [See her May 28 press release.]
  • In the lower house, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) recently amended a bill that would require railroads to report to the state Office of Emergency Services information about hazardous materials, including crude oil, being transported into the state. 
    • His proposal, AB 380 (June 2 legislative analysis), which was unanimously approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Wednesday,also would require rail carriers to maintain live, 24-hour communications lines that would enable local first-responders to contact them. [See his June 4 press release.]

An emergency regulation issued last month previously took effect on Saturday, June 7 requiring "railroads to notify states of the specific routes they will use when transporting more than 1 million barrels of Bakken crude. Such oil "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude," the U.S. Department of Transportation warned," writes Lifsher [also see KQED blog.]

However, Valero Energy spokesman Chris Howe appeared to dispute the regulator's warning.

"There is nothing inherently more dangerous about one crude than another. They are all flammable," he told Tony Bizjak of The Sacramento Bee

It should be noted that when talking of increased crude-by-rail shipments to California, it's important to distinguish types of crude. The oil sands crude from Alberta does not pose the public safety threat that the higher volatility Bakken crude presents.

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