New crude oil trains from Canada arrive in California

In a sign that crude oil train shipments to California refineries are on the rise, Union Pacific railroad officials confirmed last week they are now transporting full trains of Canadian oil through Northern California on a route that likely cuts through central Sacramento.

State rail-safety inspectors shadowed the initial trains outside of Bakersfield and reported the mile-long trains were traveling at slow speeds, most likely out of caution, just days after a UP corn train derailed in the Feather River Canyon and spilled feed into the river.

The Canadian imports are the second set of all-oil trains now believed to be coming through the capital on a regular basis. A Bakken oil train comes through midtown Sacramento once or twice a week en route to Richmond in the Bay Area.

Several more oil trains may join them in the next year. Valero Refining Co. has applied for permission to run two 50-car oil trains a day through Sacramento to its plant in Benicia, and Phillips 66 has plans to run oil trains five days a week into its refinery in San Luis Obispo County, some from the north and some via southern routes.

State officials say the Canadian trains are heading to a newly opened transfer station outside Bakersfield, where the crude oil is expected to be piped to coastal refineries. The station, operated by Plains All American Pipeline, a Texas company, is the first of several crude-by-rail facilities planned for California in the next few years. Combined, they would give oil companies the ability to receive up to 22 percent of the state’s imported crude oil by rail instead of by marine shipment.

The increase nationally in train transport of North American crude has helped push international oil prices down dramatically in recent months. It also has raised concerns about the risk of derailments and oil spills. Sacramento officials have called on oil and rail companies and federal regulators to increase safety measures to protect against spills, including requiring stronger tank cars.

Citing safety issues of their own, rail companies have generally declined to disclose where and when rail shipments are happening. But in an email to The Sacramento Bee last week, UP said new shipments into California from Canada started in late November, running through Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

“We expect to run crude trains on this route moving forward,” UP’s Aaron Hunt wrote.

The trains from Canada likely carry tar sands, also called bitumen, which is considered less flammable than the Bakken oil from North Dakota. Bakken oil has been involved in a several major rail explosions in the last few years, including one that killed 47 people in a Canadian town. State safety officials say tar sands, viscous and heavy, are a threat to waterways because the material can sink, making spills hard to clean. A bitumen spill from a ruptured pipe forced closure of 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 and required $1 billion in cleanup costs over a three-year period.

The state recently called on railroads to provide plans that show that they have the wherewithal to clean oil spills on state waterways. Officials with the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response say tar sands may require particular equipment. “Businesses that transport heavy oils are required to have response resources necessary to address these types of spills,” state spokesman Steve Gonzalez said in an email. “Contractors must be able to locate, contain and clean up a spill that has sunk to the bottom of the water. Some of these responses include sonar, containment boom, dredges and pumps.”

Rail shippers point out that derailment numbers overall have been decreasing nationally for decades and that the industry now runs oil trains at slower speeds at times.

State Public Utilities Commission officials say they sent inspectors out near Bakersfield to monitor the first Canadian oil train, and another train headed to Bakersfield from the south, and noted that the trains were traveling slower than normal.

“The first run is a critical run. If anything goes wrong, we want to be there,” PUC rail safety chief Paul King said. “There might be compliance issues. We want to see how it interfaces with traffic, what speeds they decided to go.”

King said the trains from Canada appear to be traveling on the UP line that runs parallel to Interstate 5 through Northern California, which almost certainly takes them on one of several rail lines through Sacramento. Rail officials have declined to say which lines the oil trains use.

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation required railroads to notify state officials of large shipments of Bakken oil. Many states ultimately made the information available through public records requests, against the wishes of the railroads. However, railroads are not required to report oil shipments from Canada or other non-Bakken domestic sources.

The new shipments are the first “unit” – or all-oil – trains to enter the Western U.S. from Canada, according to a report in Railway Age. Crude from Canada has been coming into California sporadically and in smaller shipments for more than a year, Railway Age reported.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Reporter Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.