The Bay Area has a long and complicated relationship with the oil industry. The region is home to five refineries, the oldest of which started operating in the late 19th century. Chevron, Shell, Phillips 66, Valero, and Tesoro are five of the top seven producers of oil products in California and their Bay Area facilities represent about 40% of the state’s total refining capacity.
As we’ve described in previous articles in this publication, the oil market is changing as the world runs out of accessible crude extracted through “conventional” methods. New grades of “extreme” crudes like Bakken shale oil and Canadian tar sands are extracted through energy-intensive and highly-polluting methods like fracking and clear-cutting forests to mine for tar sands beneath them. All along the journey from the ground to refineries to your car’s fuel tank, extreme fuels leave behind a long list of devastating impacts on climate and public health.
The dangers to public safety are multiplied when extreme oil is transported from its extraction site to refineries by rail. Activists have coined these trains “bomb trains” because when they derail, they tend to explode, incinerating anything in their path and sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air. There were four train derailments in North America between mid February and mid March, all of which caused explosions that were so intense that emergency responders let the fires burn themselves out instead of fighting them. The derailments in West Virginia and Illinois also spilled large amounts of oil into nearby rivers that provide drinking water to the neighboring communities. The oil and rail industries continue to claim that crude-by-rail accidents are anomalies that are few and far between. With four accidents within one month, those claims cannot be taken seriously.
The Bay Area’s one existing crude-by-rail terminal is operated by Kinder Morgan in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard in Richmond. This terminal was given a permit to operate by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in late 2012, without any public process or input from local decision makers. The Richmond City Council passed a resolution asking BAAQMD to revoke the permit for this terminal as it poses extreme danger to the community and is in close proximity to the Point Richmond business district, homes, and an elementary school. Many community-based organizations, including the Bay Chapter, have joined the call to revoke this permit.
Until recently, the Kinder Morgan terminal was bringing two 100-car trains of Bakken shale oil to Richmond each month. From Richmond, the unrefined crude was offloaded to trucks and driven to the Tesoro refinery near Martinez. In late November 2014, Kinder Morgan stopped receiving shipments of Bakken shale when the global price of crude oil dropped sharply. Investment in extraction of extreme crudes relies on long-term oil dependence and consistent profits. When global oil prices tanked in the fall and into the winter, the production of these extreme crudes started to become economically unsound. Kinder Morgan still has a permit to operate their crude-by-rail terminal, and can resume bringing dangerous oil trains into Richmond whenever they choose, with no public notice.
The Kinder Morgan facility is just one example of how the oil industry operates in the Bay Area: behind closed doors, with little public process or input, and often in coordination with elected officials whose first priority should be representing the interests of the communities surrounding these refineries — not those of the oil companies.
In addition to the Kinder Morgan terminal, there are several other proposed refinery projects that would bring extreme oil into the Bay Area:
- a rail spur at the Valero refinery in Benicia;
- the WesPac mega oil terminal in Pittsburg to bring in crude oil by barge and rail; and
- a complicated project to import Canadian tar sands oil by rail for processing at two linked Phillips 66 refineries in Rodeo and San Luis Obispo County (see “Toxic tar sands at center of Phillips 66 plans for Bay Area“).
There was some hope that lower oil prices would cause some of these projects to be delayed or cancelled altogether, but the future of each project is still uncertain. The WesPac project has been in limbo for the past year, while the environmental review for the Valero crude-by-rail project is being recirculated for the third time. The Rodeo portion of the Phillips 66 project was approved last month by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, while the San Luis Obisbo portion has stacked up thousands of letters of opposition as it goes through the environmental review process.
Throughout California, more that 5.5 million people live within the “blast zone”, which spans a quarter mile on either side of the railroad tracks. We’ve seen too many derailments that result in explosions and we know that our air, our water, our health, and our lives are being risked for the profit of the richest industry in the history of the planet. Residents across the state are rising up in opposition to the transport of extreme oil through our communities by rail, by barge, by pipeline, and by truck. Join the movement to keep these dirty and dangerous fuels in the ground. To get involved, email Bay Chapter conservation manager Jess Dervin-Ackerman at email@example.com.