Standing Against Big Oil's Crude-by-Rail Push

Over the last few days, we've seen a series of grassroots victories that prove we're not stuck with Big Oil's plan to foist dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure on communities across the country.

Oil Train Fire.jpg

Just last week, TransCanada (of Keystone XL infamy) confirmed that it is dropping a marine crude oil export terminal in Quebec due to environmental concerns, a move that will delay the target opening date for the massive Energy East tar sands pipeline by at least two years.

Across the continent, Big Oil was also dealt two blows against its attempts to import extreme crudes into California by rail. In the face of strong community opposition, midstream oil company WesPac has abandoned its plan to build a rail terminal that would have brought dirty crude oil into the San Francisco Bay Area.

A few years ago, WesPac proposed a rail and marine terminal that would transport 242,000 barrels per day of crude oil--nearly a third of the capacity of Keystone XL--through Pittsburg, CA, a small community of 60,000 residents and then on to Bay Area refineries. The problems with WesPac's proposal are myriad: it would expose Pittsburg's population, largely communities of color and low-income communities, to the risks of exploding trains and increased air pollution, and it would require a massive investment in fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when we should be moving toward clean energy solutions.

The project was so ill-conceived that, following comments by NRDC and others, the California Attorney General wrote a letter finding "significant legal problems" with the project's environmental review documents. Accordingly, the city decided to put the project on hold and revisit its environmental review process. That's where things stood for over a year, until last week, when WesPac announced that it would drop the rail terminal aspect of the project altogether.

As community and environmental advocates have repeatedly pointed out, oil trains pose serious risks--risks that were highlighted by a series of fiery accidents over the last few weeks. (Notably, some recent accidents have involved Canadian tar sands crude, in addition to a bevy of dangerous mishaps involving North Dakota's Bakken crude, which has long been known to be highly volatile and has been the culprit in most oil train disasters.)

This win in Pittsburg follows a recent decision by another Bay Area city, Benicia, to withdraw and revise its environmental review documents for a proposed crude-by-rail terminal at Valero's Benicia refinery. As NRDC and others, including the California Attorney General, pointed out in legal comments, the terminal would pose serious safety and health threats to Benicia and to residents along the rail line. Momentum is also building against another crude-by-rail proposal up for consideration further south in San Luis Obispo County.

These victories show the power of local communities to stop Big Oil in its tracks.

The battle, however, is far from over: Valero is still trying to push forward with its rail terminal, and WesPac's proposed marine terminal would have significant impacts on the fragile San Francisco Bay Delta and nearby residents. In fact, WesPac's plans may still include the renovation of long-dormant storage tanks to stockpile large volumes of volatile crude oil, even though those tanks are literally a stone's throw from homes, churches, and a school.

Train Map.jpgSome critics have used the boom in crude oil trains as evidence that we should allow more pipelines. They offer the false choice of risk from pipelines or risk from oil trains. The truth is more sinister. Big Oil wants more of both. Pipelines and rail serve different geographic areas and often carry different types of oil. The problem is that both forms of transportation have risks, and both bring fossil fuels perilously close to our communities. Clean energy investments do the opposite: they eliminate the dangerous risks of spills and bomb trains, while cutting carbon pollution.

It's time our elected leaders follow the example of communities across the country by saying "no" to Big Oil and "yes" to clean solutions that accelerate fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, clean fuels, and renewable energy such as solar and wind.



A March 5, 2015, oil train derailment on the banks of the Galena River in Illinois. (Environmental Protection Agency)
The proposed WesPac project. (Draft Recirculated Environmental Impact Report, Figure 2-2)

About the Authors

Franz Matzner

Deputy Director, Federal Campaigns, Center for Policy Advocacy

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