Lawsuit Derails Oil Shipments by Train for the First Time in California

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Upon review, there will not be transfers from trains to trucks in Sacramento of what is believed to be highly volatile Bakken crude oil without a full environmental report.

InterState Oil Co. announced Wednesday it is handing back a permit from the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and will stop offloading the oil at its facility on the former McClellan Air Force Base as of November 7.

The air quality district asked for the permit back after Earthjustice filed a lawsuit last month in Sacramento County Superior Court on behalf of the Sierra Club. The suit claimed that the district failed to consider the potential risk to public health and safety posed by shipping the crude in outdated tanker cars along aging rails to within seven miles of the state capital  

The suit sought a full review, as required, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“We made an error when the permit was developed and it should have gone to full CEQA review,” AQMD chief Larry Greene told the Sacramento Bee. Earthjustice hailed the move. “This is the first crude transfer project that has been stopped dead in its tracks in California,” attorney Suma Peesapati told the newspaper.      

Earthjustice lost a similar lawsuit in Richmond when San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Peter Busch ruled that the plaintiffs had missed a six-month deadline to object to the project, although he acknowledged the energy company Kinder Morgan and the AQMD had not informed the public or the city about the shipments.

Environmental groups and lawmakers are playing catch-up after new oil extraction techniques, like fracking, have made possible in recent years the importation of extra dangerous and dirty crude oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and tar sands of Alberta, Canada. The new oil sources have triggered a shift in the nation’s refinery industry away from pipelines and tanker ships to crude-by-rail.  

Railroads are carrying 25 times more crude oil nationally than they were five years ago and the increase is reflected in oil spill incidents. The California Energy Commission (CEC) has said it expects rail to account for a quarter of state imports by 2016, compared to 0.2% in 2012.

The state is not ready to bring that oil into and through heavily-populated urban areas and sensitive habitats. The rail industry is just now beginning to bring in modern, safer tanker cars, while the state pieces together safety programs to keep an eye on an industry that insists it only need listen to the federal government on issues concerning rail transportation.

InterState’s permit allowed it to unload 100 tanker cars every two weeks. It was not clear if the company would pursue a new permit.

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

Sacramento Crude Oil Transfers Halted by Lawsuit (by Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate, Sacramento Bee)

Sacramento Crude Transport Project Stopped Dead in Its Tracks (Earthjustice)

Judge Says Lawsuit Is Too Late to Contest Crude-by-Rail Deliveries to Richmond (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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