Call For Crude-By-Rail Moratorium In California After Train Derailment

A state legislator is calling for rail shipments of oil to stop, saying the state "dodged a bullet."

Photo Credit: Bengt 1955

A train derailment last week has prompted a California state legislator to call for a moratorium on crude-by-rail shipments through the state’s “most treacherous” passes.

Twelve cars derailed on a Union Pacific rail line along the Feather River northeast of Oroville, CA in the early morning hours of November 5th. The state Office of Emergency Services responded by saying “we dodged a bullet” due to the fact that the train was carrying corn, some of which spilled into the river, and not oil.

State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), a vocal critic of the state’s emergency preparedness for responding to crude-by-rail accidents, does not think California should wait around for a bullet it can’t dodge before taking action. Hill sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown calling for a moratorium on shipments of volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and other hazardous materials via the Feather River Canyon and several other high risk routes throughout California.

“This incident serves as a warning alarm to the State of California,” Hill wrote in the letter. “Had Tuesday’s derailment resulted in a spill of oil, the spill could have caused serious contamination in the Feather River, flowing into Lake Oroville and contaminating California’s second largest reservoir that supplies water to the California Water Project and millions of people.”

Hill’s letter goes on to mention the fact that increased use of crude transport by rail due to the fracking boom has also led to many more “fatal and devastating rail accidents involving large crude oil spills,” specifically raising the specter of the derailment and explosion of a train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, which killed 47 people and spilled 26,000 gallons of crude into the Chaudière River.

There is a need for a moratorium, Hill argues, because a train carrying one million gallons of Bakken crude—the same type of oil that was being transported through Lac-Mégantic—travels through the Feather River Canyon every week, and there are plans for a second of these “bomb trains” (so called due to the highly volatile nature of Bakken crude) to be added soon.

According to Hill, the trains travel through some of California’s most remote regions where the risk of derailment is especially high and “emergency responders are ill-equipped to quickly respond in these regions to prevent and mitigate major environmental and public health harm.”

Crude-by-rail has taken off in the U.S. because there is simply not enough space in existing pipelines to transport the glut of oil being produced across North America. This has led to more oil being spilled by train accidents in 2013 than in the previous three decades combined. According to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data, last year saw some 1.15 million gallons of crude oil spilled by rail incidents, compared to just 800,000 gallons between 1975 and 2012.

It just so happens that there are no pipelines bringing crude to California, however, so the state is bracing itself for a massive increase in the number of oil trains. In 2011 there were 9,000 carloads of oil shipped by rail into the Golden State, but that number is expected to swell to 200,000 carloads by 2016.

So far this year, California has imported nearly 4.4 million barrels of oil by railthrough September, compared to just 3.3 million barrels from January to September in 2013. To put that in context: the 6.3 million barrels ultimately shipped via rail to California refineries last year represented a 506% increase over the 1 million barrels shipped by rail in 2012, but was still just 1% of total oil shipments into the state. However, crude-by-rail shipments are growing so quickly that they are expected to reach as much as 150 million barrels by 2016, some 25% of total imports.

When reached for comment, the governor’s office deferred to the California Office of Emergency Services. Kelly Houston, deputy director of the OES, told DeSmog, “We share Senator Hill’s concern about the increase in crude oil coming into California by rail,” but that ultimately any decision on a moratorium would have to come from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.

Houston stresses that the state is working to make crude-by-rail shipments safer, pointing to a report released by the state this past June, “Oil by Rail Safety in California,” and the work being done with railroad operators and federal regulators to improve California’s safety and emergency preparedness standards. “We’re going to have an increased risk because we don’t want to stop commerce into the state,” Houston says, “but what we want to do is increase safety and preparedness.”

Mike Gaworecki is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy, climate, and forest issues for DeSmogBlog and Mongabay.com. His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org and Huffington Post.

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