Politics & Government

Kern County approves state’s biggest ‘oil train’ project

The Kern County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a controversial plan Tuesday to ship millions of gallons of volatile crude oil daily on trains through California to a refinery in Bakersfield. Opponents immediately said they likely will sue to stop the project.

The project, proposed by the Texas-based refinery owner, would be the largest “crude by rail” project in the state. Under the plan, Alon USA could ship two 100-car oil trains to the site daily by late 2015.

Alon has declined to discuss the shipments, but the key North American oil supplies currently come from North Dakota, Canada and Texas. Some trains may travel through Sacramento and Central Valley cities; others may come over the Tehachapi Pass from the southwest.

Kern County officials heralded the project approval as a solid step forward for that area’s economy and for the state oil industry. But several environmental groups called the project a health and safety danger.

Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said the project could employ up to 215 people at the local plant and provide 200 temporary construction jobs. She said county officials believe the train shipments and transfers at the site can be done safely.

“We believe in our oil industry and we believe oil can be safely transported inside and outside California, and we look forward to the refinery getting up to full operations,” Oviatt said.

Environmentalists, however, said they are considering suing to stop the project, saying it will put Californians at risk by sending unsafe train shipments of volatile crude oil through the state and will increase pollution problems in the Central Valley.

“The county has rushed this enormous project through faster than I have ever seen,” said Kassie Siegel, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. She said her group believes the Kern County environmental review of the project is flawed. “I suspect the next stop is to go to court to challenge the project.”

Recent increases in domestic oil production have led to a surge of crude oil transports via train nationally. The increase has led to a handful of derailments and explosions, including one that killed 47 people in a Canadian town last year, prompting the federal government to issue safety warnings and push for ways to make oil rail shipments safer.

Siegel’s group notably challenged a Kern County analysis that determined a train incident causing an oil spill on tracks in the county is likely to happen only once every 150 years. The center’s analysis indicates a spill is more likely to occur once in 30 years. Wendy Park, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, argued that Kern’s analysis also is inadequate because it does not evaluate the risks of derailments and spills outside of Kern County borders.

The Bakersfield project is similar to one proposed in Benicia in the Bay Area. The Valero Refining Co. wants to ship 100 train cars of crude oil daily through Northern California, including through downtown Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis to its Benicia refinery. Benicia has published a draft environmental review and is accepting public comment. The public comment period closes Monday.

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