On June 17, Oakland became the latest West Coast city to oppose crude oil transport by train. The city council’s unanimous vote had the ring of mere formality; the federal Department of Transportation is supposed to regulate railways. But with dozens of accidents in the last year alone and little enforcement by DOT, municipal governments across California, Washington and Oregon are scouring city code, trying to find anything that will give them oversight of the flammable sludge rolling past their homes.
With its 18 petroleum refineries, California has seen a staggering 130-fold increase of crude oil coming in by rail according to the NRDC, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million in 2013. Most of it comes from the Bakken shale in North Dakota. This new Bakken crude is plentiful and cheap but has the unfortunate ability to explode into fireballs the size of thunderheads. Last July, a mile-long train full of Bakken derailed in eastern Quebec, killing 47 people and wiping out part of a town. And while federal regulators have asked fossil fuel companies to stop using old, non-pressurized DOT-111 cars that crumple and rupture when they derail, that’s all they’ve done so far — asked.
Oakland’s statement of opposition lists a host of other worries: Nearly 100 accidents involving trains full of crude in 2013; 1.15 million gallons spilled in the U.S. in 2013; the fact that benzene-rich oil is being hauled past California’s waterways and over mountain passes laced with earthquake faults. And, of course, the communities these trains roll through: densely populated low-income areas of Oakland where asthma and other air-quality illnesses are already at regional highs.
“We don’t have jurisdiction over the rails,” Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said during the meeting in which the vote took place. “[But] I think it’s important for our community to stand up and say to the federal government and to the regulators and to our nation at large that we are very concerned.”
The resolution also lists possible actions, mostly sending letters to every regional and state agency that could possibly govern what the NRDC is calling “rolling pipelines” — the governors office, the Bay Area air quality district, even the CPUC, which is supposed to oversee utilities. And it highlights a central conundrum for towns along California’s rails. While municipal governments have a say over the public safety of new infrastructure via the likes of city code and EIR, they have very little power once something is built. Especially if that something moves cargo that belongs to someone else.
Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt has been discovering this over the last few months. That East Bay city took a similar vote in March, but with an interesting twist. If local government had no say over its tracks, Butt wondered, could it at least ban the transport of crude oil on city streets? Theoretically, some of that oil would go from train to truck. Could it be overseen then?
“The short answer is probably not,” he says three months later. “We can establish truck routes, but we can’t say that oil trucks can go here and not there. We have almost no ability to regulate these things at all.”
According to city legal council, Butt adds, this goes back to the constitution. Municipalities just don’t have authority over national commerce.
“We do have some authority over land use,” he says. “But there are no new structures in this process, so we have nothing to grab onto.”
But 7.4 billion barrels are expected to come out of the black rocks in North Dakota; new structures may not be far off. And building, finally, is something that local governments do have a say in. An EIR for rail expansion in the central coast county of San Luis Obispo is being drafted right now. The Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery would be the destination, and those tracks run right through the East Bay. According to Murry Wilson with San Luis Obispo county, that EIR will go before the planning commission in December.
“The Phillips 66 project would transport 2 million gallons per day of crude oil through the Bay Area,” yet another resolution by the Berkeley City Council reads. “Roughly 80 tanker cars per day of crude oil assembled in a single train would pass through our cities. A crude train accident could occur anywhere along the transportation corridor including in the densely populated Bay Area, in Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland.”
No suited city council members are out, shoulder-to-shoulder, blockading the tracks — at least not yet. But this EIR in a semi-rural county in California is going to be a battleground. It’s one of the only things that local government can control. And seeing as Oakland, Berkeley, Davis and Richmond are up against a network of refineries and other key players in Fossil Fuel Empire, it’s going to be dirtier than Bakkan crude.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.