On Thursday, February 4, people from all over California converged on San Luis Obispo to Stop Oil Trains. Here's one photo of the demonstration by Alex Chis. You can see many more of his photos here.
by Paul W. Rea
On February 4 and 5, a wide-ranging, dynamic coalition made a most impressive showing in San Luis Obispo (SLO). Over two days of hearings, speaker after speaker critiqued Phillip 66’s plan to have “bomb” trains bring in highly flammable and toxic tar sands crude oil. If approved, these trains would haul gunky but deadly bitumen from Alberta, Canada to the Central Coast—a very long haul.
In fact, the hearings soon became a rhetorical and informational rout. Addressing the SLO County Planning Commission, speakers from up and down the coast debunked plans to expand the refinery in Santa Maria. By the end of the second day, only a half dozen speakers had spoken in favor while many dozens had spoken against the project.
Informed Legal Challenges to the Phillips 66 Proposal
Not only was the quantity overwhelming, but the quality of the three-minute statements was the highly impressive. Public officials, professionals with special expertise, and citizens from far and wide drew on their personal experience and professional expertise, providing critique that was highly informed and consistently on point.
Activists cited the crumbling infrastructure of American railroads plus the fact that empty tank cars can be more explosive than full ones. Empty or full, outmoded tankers release noxious gasses long the route over many hundreds of miles.
Teachers cited tracks closer than the toss of a ball from school playgrounds. Doctors and nurses explained what the particulates in diesel exhaust do to the human lungs. A chemistry professor debunked the company’s junk science. Lawyers and law students challenged the absolutism of the “federal preemption” as invoked by Phillips 66.
The company’s lawyer reiterated the common claim that because the oil would travel by rail, no legal basis existed for challenging its interstate commerce. But Linda Cobb, an attorney for the Sierra Club, retorted that in fact “there is no [federal] preemption of land use decisions,” which is the real issue before the Planning Commission. Having recently researched this preemption issue, law students from the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford added that the intent of a law prevails—and that Congress did not intend to erode state and local responsibility for land use.
Regular folks from up and down the coast exposed the company’s false claims and invoked threats to local environments and quality of life. A high school student pointed out how “oil trains are dinosaurs—and dinosaurs belong in museums.”
Educated, Articulate Speakers from Nipono
Many of the most impressive speakers came from Mesa Refinery Watch Group, most of them retired or semi-retired professionals from Nipono, just a few miles from the refinery. Members’ stellar presentations came as no surprise, since this volunteer group, led by Larry Shinderman and Gary McKible, has long produced highly expert research, posted it on a visitor-friendly website, and published in a very professional electronic newsletter (http://www.mesarefinerywatch.com).
To popularize their cause, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group had sponsored “the Larry and Gary Show,” with its lively, irreverent commentary beamed throughout the state. The day before the hearings, Larry made three radio interviews (one on KPFA) urging people far and wide to attend.
While several of the most impressive speakers from Nipono were seemingly neither environmentalists nor progressives, their contributions were highly cogent, often focusing on the voodoo economics of the company’s proposal. Jack Moyer rebutted its claims that the refinery was not receiving enough crude oil to refine—and, if it didn’t receive the Canadian crude, might well go out of business. He and others also pointed out how the railroads continue to stall on various safety improvements, including electronic brakes and better tank cars.
Roger Hensler, a former VP of Wells Fargo with a long interest in water quality, was among several speakers who indicated that as executives and members of corporate boards, they were not against profits—just excessive profits at public expense. While one might argue that all profits come at public expense, this perspective seemed to play well with the country planners.
One of the most informative speakers was Richard Kuprewicz, president of an engineering consulting firm and adviser to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration. Kuprewicz pointed to the dangers of “the illusion of safety,” asking whether the safety improvements touted by railroads actually work. By showing genuine concern, he and others helped dispel the common suspicion that industry people don’t care about public safety.
Speaking after his presentation, Kuprewicz cited the 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River to illustrate the unique threats posed by tar-sands oil. Because this heavy crude contains a toxic stew of petrochemicals added so the “tar” can be made liquid, they poison air, land and water. If this crude goes into water, the heavy, toxic sludge remains on the bottom for decades. Because heavy oil sinks so quickly, none of the usual interventions are effective: there’s little opportunity to “clean up” a tar sands oil spill.
Phillips 66 Refinery Expansion Also Threatens East Bay
Activist groups from East and South Bay also had a huge presence at the hearings. They were essential to let the public understand that the route of the tar-sands oil trains runs the full length of the East Bay urban corridor, from Richmond through Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and on to San Jose. The lives, health, and property of over a million Californians would suddenly be put at risk.
Working in tandem with the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Forest Ethics provided consistently dynamic, creative and tireless leadership. Later national groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council and local groups such as the Committee for a Better Environment and the Sunflower Alliance began to become involved. Together these groups helped generate 25,000 letters to the SLO County Planning Commission.
Led by Val Love and Ethan Buckner, respectively, CBD and Forest Ethics co-organized a door-to-door canvassing campaign in SLO County; especially in north county communities, it extended awareness of the refinery expansion. When canvassers met in city parks to avoid renting a hall, these efforts became literally grassroots. To continue the organizing in the county, the California Nurses Association contributed an organizer for several weeks.
Every City Along the East-Bay Rail Route Signs On
Along with local community organizers, Love and Buckner led a campaign to get both city councils and school boards along the rail route to send letters to the SLO county planners. The biggest coup was San Jose, where City Council member Ash Kaira made the oil-trains issue his own. Meetings in San Jose informed residents with little previous awareness of the dangers. The eventual result was that San Jose, the largest city to the immediate north of SLO County, also sent letters of opposition.
Exposing the Strategies Adopted by Big Oil
The much-reviled Keystone XL pipeline is dead, but it was only a part of the oil industry’s much bigger plans. When pipelines fail to deliver their product, Big Oil has turned to oil trains for hauling dangerous crude oil in tank cars designed for benign corn oil.
But these oil trains over a mile long have not gone down well. Given the opposition—often led by “first nation” native peoples—to pipelines in Canada, Big Oil unveiled vast and varied plans to get ta-sands crude to market. This push to move and refine a low-grade crude has sparked opposition up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland to Benicia, Richmond, and Oakland. Now San Luis Obispo country has also become a battleground; it now looks like the good guys are going to win.
A Growing Movement Against Rail Transport of Crude Oil
Up and down the coast, citizens are pushing back. Huge protests have also erupted against oil trains in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon. Several Bay Area communities—notably Benicia and Richmond—have opposed Big Oil’s expansions to refineries for many years. Recently Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau banned tankers from some Pacific ports, but these struggles will be both long and ongoing (http://beniciaindependent.com).
While it looks like sanity will prevail on the southern front, tough battles remain, first against Tesoro in Benicia and then against the coal trains proposed for the Port of Oakland.
La lutta continua.
[Paul W. Rea, PhD, is a writer and activist in the East Bay. ]
A BNSF train carrying ethanol derailed Saturday near Alma, Wisconsin, and caused some of the product to leak into the Mississippi River.
BNSF Railway officials says they have stopped the leaks from the five affected tanker cars.
The derailment occurred around 8:45 Saturday morning, causing 25 of the 32 cars on a mixed freight train to derail. The train was traveling southbound along the river when the derailment occurred, sending a few of the cars into the water.
On November 8, emergency crews in the small town of Watertown, Wisconsin, needed to respond to yet another oil train derailment.
Canadian Pacific officials say it happened just after 2:00 p.m. An eastbound train carrying crude oil derailed in Watertown.
Dodge County Office of Emergency Management officials say this derailment occurred near South Montgomery and West Street.
by Anders Vang Nielsen
For most people involved in climate activism, mentioning the name of my city of birth leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. Since Copenhagen was the stage for the infamous COP15 failure, it has become an emblem not only of disillusionment with international climate politics but also of illegal police repression of popular action against the political deadlock.
With all eyes now set on Paris and the promise of COP21 to deliver a non-binding agreement of insufficient emission reduction targets infested with corporate-friendly offset mechanisms, a piece of positive climate news recently ticked in from Denmark: after years of facing escalating popular protest, in August this year the French energy giant Total finally gave up on their only standing shale gas exploration site in Vendsyssel in the north of the country. The corporation retains the license to explore for shale gas in the area until June 2016, but with no further operations announced as yet, their initial defeat is a milestone in the fight against fracking in Denmark.
More than just abandoning one specific drilling rig, Total is also effectively calling off what they have described as an intent to set a precedent for future fracking operations by pushing the extreme energy agenda in a country known for its solid environmental regulation. In the words of Total’s Project Manager for the exploration in Denmark, Henrik Nicolaisen: “if it is possible to establish an economically feasible project here, it will be possible anywhere.” Now that the corporation is putting fracking project and prophecies alike on hold, it’s worth asking: what made it impossible?
"Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the 'three Rs' on the minds of school kids and their parents."
by Deirdre Fulton
As children across the country head back to school this week, a new report from public interest group ForestEthics reveals that 14,800 schools and 5.7 million students are within the "oil train blast zone"—the area that must be evacuated in case of a derailment or fire from an oil train.
Using its Blast Zone map, released last year, and data from the Department of Education, ForestEthics identified the five U.S. cities with the greatest numbers of students at risk from a potential oil train derailment and explosion: Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and El Paso.
"The federal government needs to protect the millions of students sitting in classrooms inside the blast zone," said Matt Krogh, extreme oil campaign director for ForestEthics, which is calling for a moratorium on oil trains in the absence of publicly available information about their routes, their contents, and their safety.
Protest letters flood in from north and south of San Luis Obispo County
By Cynthia Lambert, July 11, 2015
Cities, school districts and public officials throughout California have signaled their opposition to a proposed project at the Nipomo Mesa refinery that would allow it to receive oil by rail, but nearly all San Luis Obispo County public agencies have stayed out of the fray.
Only the city of San Luis Obispo and the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association have urged the county not to approve the project — despite intense local lobbying by regional and statewide opponents.
More than 40 public agencies or elected officials in California — cities, school districts, teachers unions and three state senators — have penned letters or passed resolutions against Phillips 66 Co.’s plan to upgrade its refinery so it can receive train car crude oil deliveries.
Many of those agencies are located along the rail lines the oil trains could travel en route to San Luis Obispo County. Trains carrying crude oil could enter California at five locations, so the exact routes may vary.
By Julie Cart for the LA Times
July 9 2015
Hydraulic fracturing uses a host of highly toxic chemicals — the impacts of which are for the most part unknown — that could be contaminating drinking water supplies, wildlife and crops, according to a report released Thursday by a California science panel.
The long-awaited final assessment from the California Council on Science and Technology said that because of data gaps and inadequate state testing, overwhelmed regulatory agencies do not have a complete picture of what oil companies are doing.
The risks and hazards associated with about two-thirds of the additives used in fracking are not clear, and the toxicity of more than half, the report concluded, remains “uninvestigated, unmeasured and unknown. Basic information about how these chemicals would move through the environment does not exist.”
Jane Long, the report's co-lead, said officials should fully understand the toxicity and environmental profiles of all chemicals before allowing them to be used in California's oil operations.
Recycled oil field wastewater used for crop irrigation may contain chemicals used during fracking and other well stimulation procedures, the report said. While treatment of that water is required, the testing is not adequate, the report said. Long said researchers did not find strong evidence of fracking fluids in irrigation water but added: “What we did find was that there was not any control in place to prevent it from happening.”
From Reuters, July 1, 2015
By Kristen Hays
HOUSTON - Union Pacific Corp will impose a $1,200 per-car surcharge on oil shippers that move crude in older railcars, the company told customers this week, becoming at least the second U.S. railroad to charge extra amid widespread safety concerns.
In a revised tariff taking effect Aug. 1, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the No. 1 U.S. railroad posted rates that will charge shippers more if they use so-called DOT-111 railcars, which are not as strong as cars built to a higher standard the industry adopted in October 2011.
For DOT-111s carrying an average of 700 barrels of crude per car, a $1,200 surcharge would add an additional cost of $1.71 per barrel shipped.
Union Pacific said it changed its tariff in response to stronger U.S. rules for handling flammable liquids that were recently announced after a string of fiery crashes.
By NICOLA CLARK MAY 20, 2015
PARIS — Across Europe and East Asia, hundreds of millions of train passengers a year are routinely whisked, at speeds that often exceed 200 miles an hour, over extensive rail networks that, for many, present a more reliable and affordable long-distance alternative than even air travel.
So the fatal derailment of an Amtrak train last week in Philadelphia that was traveling at half that speed surprised many outside North America, where railway accident rates have declined steadily to levels that now rival those of the world’s safest airlines.
In the aftermath of the wreck, and apart from House Speaker John A. Boehner’s dismissal of a question about railway funding as “stupid,” analysts say that if there is one lesson from abroad for preventing accidents like last week’s, it is this: You get what you pay for.
By a global standard, the United States has not been paying much. For the size of its economy, it lags far behind many of the world’s most developed countries in spending on rail networks.
As a consequence, industry experts say, the United States has among the worst safety records despite having some of the least-extensive passenger rail networks in the developed world. Fatality rates are almost twice as high as in the European Union and countries like South Korea, and roughly triple the rate in Australia.
Analysts say the impressive safety record in Europe and Asia is a result of steady government spending of billions of dollars on development and maintenance of railroad infrastructure, including sophisticated electronic monitoring and automated braking systems developed over the past 20 years.
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