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Oil company dealt another blow on plan to ship crude by train

A Union Pacific oil train burns near the town of Mosier, Ore., after derailing last June. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality later found oil-contaminated groundwater.
A Union Pacific oil train burns near the town of Mosier, Ore., after derailing last June. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality later found oil-contaminated groundwater. The Seattle Times

For the second time in a month, a California community has rejected an oil company’s plans to ship crude oil on long trains through Sacramento and other cities to coastal refineries.

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission on Wednesday voted to reject a request by Phillips 66 Co. to build a facility at its Nipomo Mesa refinery that would allow it to receive oil shipments via three trains a week, some of which likely would have traveled through Sacramento and other Northern California communities.

The 3-2 vote to deny Phillips can be appealed by the company to the county Board of Supervisors.

Two weeks ago, the City Council in Benicia unanimously rejected a proposal by Valero Refining Co. that would have allowed it to receive oil from two 50-car trains daily on rail lines through downtown Sacramento, Roseville, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon and other Northern California communities, as well as through the Feather River Canyon watershed.

Both oil companies were seeking local approval to build spur rail lines and oil transfer stations at their refineries to access oil from North American crude-oil fields, which have seen a boom from new hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – technology.

The requests pitted the oil companies against anti-oil activists, environmentalists and leaders of communities along rail lines, including officials in Sacramento and Davis who said they were concerned about the potential for catastrophic derailment and fires involving the volatile liquid.

The increase in crude-oil train shipments nationally has led to more derailments and explosions over the last half-dozen years. The worst of those accidents killed 47 people in a Canadian town three years ago. Although oil trains have become common in many areas, large oil shipments on rail remain rare in California, due in part to opposition. Several 100-car trains of volatile oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota traveled through midtown Sacramento in 2014 to the Bay Area, but those shipments stopped late that year.

Local leaders cheered the decisions by Benicia and San Luis Obispo to reject the plans. Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor said the Benicia council decision, in particular, sends a message nationally that local communities can have a say over whether or not mile-long oil trains will travel through their communities.

“The community of Benicia, in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters,” Saylor said.

In a letter this week, a Valero oil company attorney contended the city of Benicia acted illegally when it rejected Valero’s plan to ship two 50-car oil trains a day through Northern California to the company’s Benicia refinery. Benicia officials, however, said they believe their decision is legally solid.

Valero officials have suggested in the past they might sue the city. Valero spokesman Chris Howe in an email this week to The Sacramento Bee said the company “continues to consider all of its options.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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