When state legislators, playing catch-up with crude-by-rail shipments streaming unattended into California, passed some oversight laws this summer, critics said they weren’t nearly strong enough to be effective.
On Tuesday, the railroads filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern California saying at least one of them was illegal interference in their lawful business. The law, Senate Bill 861, was aimed at safety issues.
Railroads would have to participate in a state program that plans for oil-spill threats to surface water from pipelines, oil wells, tanker ships and them. It finances a beefed-up safety program with fees on oil companies and requires railroads to have disaster response plans that pass muster with the state. The law also expands coordination between local, state and federal governments
The railroads say none of that stuff is the business of the state. “Federal law exempts this entire regime,” the railroads argue in their suit, and there are already plenty of safeguards on U.S. books regarding the transportation of hazardous materials.
The lawsuit was filed by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, BNSF Railway Co and the Association of American Railroads. It names as defendants the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s California Office of Spill Prevention and Response and Attorney General Kamala Harris. The attorney general wrote a letter last week to the Bay Area city of Benicia criticizing the environmental review it conducted of Valero Refining Company’s plan to process crude oil from 100 tanker cars a day that would arrive via Roseville and Sacramento.
The much-anticipated report, written by Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco for the city of Benicia, singled out air pollution, “significant and unavoidable,” as the sole danger among 11 “environmental resource or issue areas.” Overall, it found the environmental threat to be negligible.
The report concluded that oil spills between Roseville and Benicia would occur about once every 111 years. The project would have no impact on agriculture and forestry resources or mineral resources. It would also have less-than-significant impacts on aesthetics, population and housing, public services, recreation and utilities and service systems.
In other words, the assumption is there won’t be anything like the tragic accident in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 72 tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town’s core. On Tuesday, a 100-car train traveling in Saskatchewan, Canada, derailed and burst into flames. Six of the cars contained hazardous materials, two of which were petroleum products. The train derailed less than a mile from the town of Clair (pop. 50), which was evacuated.
California, like states and localities across the nation, are scrambling just to get a handle on how much crude-by-rail is coursing through their jurisdictions, much less assessing what regulations and safety measures need to be put in place. In 2012, only 0.2% of the 598 million barrels of oil arrived by rail in California.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) has said it expects rail to account for a quarter of imports by 2016 as oil production in the West booms, thanks in large part to fracking and other aggressive extraction techniques, and producers look for refiners. And, of course, tar sands oil from Canada looms as Alberta looks to ship the world’s dirtiest petroleum product to the Gulf Coast via the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and California via trucks and rail.