Although most people think of oil spills in California as potential beachfront disasters, there is new anxiety in Sacramento about the surge of crude oil now coming through the state each day by train.
Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers want to avoid the sort of fiery disaster that killed 47 people in July in southern Quebec when tank cars exploded as they carried oil from the booming Bakken oil fields of North Dakota through Canada. Other less spectacular oil tanker car derailments occurred in Aliceville, Ala.; Casselton, N.D.; and Lynchburg, Va., during the last 12 months.
With a steady increase of oil now being shipped into California from out of state, policymakers are scrambling to come up with spill-prevention programs to lower the risk of potentially deadly accidents. Proposals under consideration include hiring new state railroad inspectors, developing better spill-response plans and improving communications between rail carriers and emergency services agencies.
"California is seeing a huge shift in the way we import oil," said state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), one of two lawmakers pushing oil-by-rail safety bills this session in the Legislature. "We need to address the new and unique hazards of crude-by-rail transportation."
The threat to California communities is particularly dire, environmental justice groups contend, because many of the state's busiest rail lines run through densely populated areas, and refineries often are in low-income neighborhoods, such as Wilmington in southern Los Angeles County and Richmond in Northern California's Contra Costa County.
Railroads question the need for new state regulations that could conflict with the federal government's historic oversight of all aspects of rail safety, operations and working conditions. Rail companies say they have "a 99.997% safe delivery record of hazardous materials" and they are eager to cooperate with state officials to ensure even safer operations.
Oil imports by rail account for just about 1% of total shipments to California refineries. Most of the crude arrives by ship or by pipelines from in-state production fields.
But that mix is changing fast. Last year, railroads brought 6.3 million barrels of crude into the Golden State, mostly from North Dakota and Canada, according to the California Energy Commission. That's up from 1.1 million barrels in 2012 and just 498,000 in 2010. A barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil.
Shipments to Southern California accounted for most of last year's almost sixfold jump in crude-by-rail activity, the commission reported. Tank-car transportation, it estimates, could reach about a quarter of all state imports in 2016 if the trend continues.
Volume went "from nothing to massive, a huge expansion," said Julia May, a senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, a Huntington Park group that advocates for low-income people living near pollution sources. "It's a major concern."
Three proposals for protecting the state against rail-related oil spills are under consideration.
As part of his annual budget, Gov. Brown wants to expand an existing prevention-and-response program for ocean oil spills to cover inland areas. The initiative would be funded by a proposed 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee on all crude oil delivered by rail to refineries. Additionally, Brown is asking lawmakers to approve hiring new track inspectors.
Separately, Pavley last week steered a similar spill-response measure, SB 1319, through the state Senate, winning approval on a 23-11 vote.
In the lower house, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) recently amended a bill that would require railroads to report to the state Office of Emergency Services information about hazardous materials, including crude oil, being transported into the state.
His proposal, AB 380, which was unanimously approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Wednesday , also would require rail carriers to maintain live, 24-hour communications lines that would enable local first-responders to contact them.
"We want to make sure that in California we get the information we need," Dickinson said.
Meanwhile, the federal government, which is ultimately responsible for railroad safety regulation, recently issued an emergency order to railroads to notify states of the specific routes they will use when transporting more than 1 million barrels of Bakken crude. Such oil "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude," the U.S. Department of Transportation warned.
"The number and type of petroleum crude oil railroad accidents … that have occurred during the last year is startling," the department said in its May 7 order, referring to recent accidents in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia.
The Brown administration plans and the Pavley legislation are opposed by the two principal railroads that haul crude oil to California: Union Pacific and BNSF.
"The railroads understand the questions and concerns that California has regarding crude oil shipped into the state by rail," the two companies said in a May 22 letter to Pavley.
They also warned that the proposed California rules may be unworkable, preempted by existing federal laws and harmful to national security concerns.
Union Pacific and BNSF also cautioned policymakers to be skeptical of official projections of an extremely rapid increase of crude shipments to California.
The oil industry in a May 28 "alert" to state senators called the Pavley bill "excessive" and "not narrowly focused on areas where there may be a real risk from potential oil spills by rail."
The prospect of more and bigger accidents is real if immediate changes are not made, warned Jayni Foley Hein, executive director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the UC Berkeley School of Law.
"The danger is not so much the oil itself as a commodity," Hein said, "but the sheer number of cars carrying this oil ... combined with aging infrastructure."