California is widely regarded as being a leader in the global fight against climate change. But over the past year, the state's reputation for forward-thinking environmentalism has taken a major hit. Last fall, the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown decided to green-light expansion of the fossil-fuel extraction process known as fracking. And in recent months, we've learned that oil companies are increasingly shipping to California a new type of fracked crude that is raising serious safety concerns, especially for densely populated areas.
The dangers presented by fracked oil once again made national news last week when an oil tanker train derailed and exploded in a fireball in Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping toxic fuel into the James River. It was just the most recent scary accident involving highly flammable oil fracked from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota. The most serious of the recent incidents occurred last July, when a train carrying Bakken oil exploded in Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people and destroying a downtown area.
"Luckily, no injuries have been reported in Virginia," said Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay Chapter. "But what if this type of accident happened in the densely populated Bay Area?"
The possibility of a major fracked oil disaster occurring in the urban East Bay has increased over the past several months. Last September, fossil-fuel company Kinder-Morgan began shipping Bakken crude through its Richmond facility, and other oil companies have plans to bring in the highly explosive fuel to the area by train as well. The demand for Bakken crude is rising because it's relatively cheap to extract. And as a result, oil tanker trains carrying the fuel are now rolling throughout the state, and may soon be traveling along Oakland's waterfront, and through Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, and El Cerrito.
Environmental groups are also increasingly concerned about the shipping of coal and petroleum coke (also known as petcoke), a coal-like byproduct of oil refining, via rail. Trains carrying coal tend to lose lots of coal dust, which, in turn, can make rail tracks hazardous and contribute to train derailments. Between July 2012 and July 2013, at least forty coal trains derailed in the country, according to research compiled by the Sierra Club. According to BNSF Railway, each coal car loses about 500 pounds of coal in transit — that's a whopping 60,000 pounds lost for every 120-car train.
Although California doesn't use coal for energy, the fuel is shipped out of West Coast ports to China and Japan. According to public records obtained by the Sierra Club, the Port of Stockton has received permission to ship up to three million tons of coal per year — that's about 24 trains of 85 cars each per week, Myers said. Coal also is being shipped through the East Bay at the privately operated Richmond-Levin Terminal. The coal comes from the Powder River Basin, a major coal-producing region that encompasses parts of Montana and Wyoming.
The presence of hazardous fossil fuels in the region has prompted several environmental groups to call on local city councils to pass resolutions opposing the transportation of fracked oil, coal, and petcoke through their jurisdictions. Both the Richmond and Berkeley city councils have already adopted such measures concerning the shipping of crude oil by rail. And environmental groups are pushing the Oakland City Council to do the same in the months ahead. "We're hoping that cities use their political power to build pressure and ask for greater oversight" of fossil-fuel rail shipments, Myers said.
It's a no-brainer. The Oakland City Council should publicly come out against the shipping of volatile and hazardous fuel through the city. Imagine if a train carrying fracked oil exploded on Oakland's waterfront, in the middle of Jack London Square? Or near residential neighborhoods in West or East Oakland? It's unconscionable.
Unfortunately, local governments have no real authority over what gets shipped by train through their backyards. That's the federal government's job. And earlier this year, the feds indicated that they might actually do something: The National Transportation Safety Board made much-needed recommendations to increase rail safety standards for crude oil shipments. However, the US Department of Transportation has yet to issue, let alone adopt, such standards.
Still, cities, counties, and the state government can help raise public awareness by taking public stances against the shipping of dangerous fossil fuels by rail in California. And Myers is right: They can help build political pressure to bring about change — and perhaps restore the state's reputation for being an environmental leader as well.
Smith River Protected, for Now
Late last week, a judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking Caltrans from moving forward on plans to widen two state highways along the pristine Smith River in Northern California. The Smith is the last major undammed river in the state, and it not only provides drinking water for local communities near the Oregon border, but it also is home to an environmentally significant run for endangered Coho salmon.
The court injunction stemmed from a lawsuit filed against Caltrans by environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity. Caltrans had begun construction earlier this year to widen state Highways 197 and 199 to accommodate more big rigs. But local residents and environmentalists strongly oppose the project because wider roads will likely attract more tanker trucks to the region, thereby increasing the chances of a big rig overturning and spilling toxic fuel or chemicals into the Smith River. The highways also wend through old-growth redwood forests, including Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
Judge James Donato ruled that Caltrans must halt the widening project until a hearing on environmental concerns takes place in November.