October 3rd, 2014
San Francisco’s East Bay is home to five oil refineries, which means crude oil is transported through its communities by rail on a regular basis. According to the California Energy Commission, more than 6 million barrels of crude oil arrived by rail in 2013, and the number is on the increase.
Concerned citizens along the Contra-Costa –Solano refinery belt, which includes the communities of Richmond, Rodeo, Martinez and Concord, have waged protests against proposed refinery expansions. Proponents point out the $2 billion investment and hundreds of construction jobs the upgrades promise to generate. At a recent forum held at The Commonwealth Club, many concerns were voiced; not surprisingly, safety was at the top of the list. Fresh in people’s minds was the 1993 derailment of a train carrying Bakken formation crude oil from Canada. The explosion resulted in the deaths of 47 people in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
“Every morning I walk my daughter to preschool in the East Bay,” one parent told the panel. “It’s a few hundred yards from the rail line. How can I determine whether there are explosive crude oil shipments going past my daughter’s preschool?”
Federal safety regulations have been proposed, including slower speed limits, improved safety on the railcars and higher tech breaking systems. But for these communities, they’re not happening fast enough, says Molly Samuels of KQED. “How long is it going to take for these recommendations to actually come into place?” she wondered. “Meanwhile, the trains are still coming.”
BSNF, the railway company that transports oil into the Bay Area, declined an invitation to join the discussion. But Tupper Hull, speaking for the Western States Petroleum Industry, says safety is a shared responsibility between oil producers and the railroads, and they’ve made it a priority. “The railroads are taking tremendous steps to change the way they operate, to work with the U.S. Government in the types of equipment that are being integrated into the system,” he told the crowd. “The oil industry has recommended since 2011 the upgrade of construction standards for rail cars. Our members are making the investment to put the stronger, better constructed rail cars into service as quickly as possible.”
But finding ways to transport crude oil safely isn’t the issue, according to Jess Dervin-Ackerman, a community organizer for The Sierra Club. Rather, she argues, we shouldn’t be bringing it in at all. “We actually shouldn’t be investing billions of dollars in new infrastructure that’s not safe, or that will cause harm and contribute to climate change,” Dervin-Ackerman says.
“We should actually be investing these billions of dollars in local renewable energy, energy efficiency, other lower carbon fuels to run public transit or cars.”
Hull says oil producers are just giving people what they want – ready gasoline for their cars when they pull up to the pump. “We need 44 million gallons of gasoline every day in California,” he points out. “Now, we can talk about what the future holds, but our members have an obligation to supply that market day in and day out. And they’re going to do it as safely as they can, at the lowest possible cost they can.”
John Avalos serves on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and is a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. For his organization, air quality is a major concern. Not only is the number of oil shipments increasing, but the heavy crude coming from the Bakken formation and potentially, Canadian tar sands, is vastly more harmful than before. “If there's more toxicity to the oil, then that’s going to actually increase the volatile chemicals that are put in the air, sulfur dioxide’s put in the air,” he told the Commonwealth Club audience. “Those have harmful impacts, especially on the communities close to the refineries, but it actually affects the whole Bay Area.”
AB32, California’s landmark 1990 low-carbon initiative, calls for reduction of carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2050. But according to Tupper Hull, the oil industry itself is moving towards a much earlier target. “We’re going to hit that goal in California around 2017 or 2018,” he predicts. “Our industry is changing. The transportation fleet is changing. We are making huge progress towards a lower carbon future.”
That may be good news for California. But not all of the oil that comes from California refineries is meant for domestic use. As Jess Dervin-Ackerman points out, if the oil companies are vying to ramp up infrastructure in the Bay Area, it’s largely to serve a global customer base – not those who live in the houses surrounding the refineries.
“These decisions should be made…in the best interest of the local communities,” she says, “and what we’re seeing, actually, is that they not.”
As the oil companies lobby for expansion, adds Dervin-Ackerman, it’s vital that East Bay residents voice their opposition.
“We have tremendous opportunities for local communities to actually weigh in about whether these projects are the right fit for them. And that’s what these decisions should be being made on – not whether Chevron needs to expand so that it can make more money exporting oil out of the community.”
– Anny Celsi
October 3, 2014
Photos by Ellen Cohan
The Commonwealth Club of California
This program is generously underwritten by the San Francisco Foundation.