Viewpoints: Oil trains are necessary and their risks can be minimized

We can only hope that The Sacramento Bee has exhausted its appetite for fear-mongering around the issue of transportation of crude oil by rail. The latest article, which contained some very thoughtful and appropriate discussion about the exhaustive efforts to ensure safe transport of hazardous materials, was packaged in a way that was clearly designed to create needless anxiety.

What has been sorely missing from The Bee’s coverage of this issue are some simple and essential facts:

• We live in a heavily industrialized society that requires enormous amounts of energy. That energy – whether from fossil fuels or other sources – provides us mobility, comfort, convenience, safety and well-being that are unprecedented in human history.

• We have limited options for the delivery of energy to California. Because of the scale of our state’s economy, and therefore our demand for energy, the only practical means of supplying that demand are from ships, pipelines or trains. All have risks associated with them but they are risks that can be, and have been, successfully managed.

• America’s energy renaissance is a good and welcome change in our nation’s energy profile. Increased production of oil and natural gas in North Dakota and elsewhere have helped lower energy costs for businesses and consumers, sparked a resurgence of manufacturing, increased employment and protected us from the whims of unfriendly nations that just happen to have abundant oil supplies.

• Increased transport of crude oil in rail cars is the only practical means by which California can benefit from that renaissance. Failure to expand our energy infrastructure and erecting barriers to rail transport will mean California will be increasingly dependent on foreign sources of essential supplies of energy.

There are, of course, risks associated with moving large volumes of crude oil in rail cars. The question is not whether those risks can be eliminated. It’s a matter of whether they can be managed to acceptable levels.

The tragic accidents so prominent in The Bee’s coverage have prompted extraordinary reviews of current regulations, tank car construction standards, industry practices and classification systems for hazardous material. The U.S. Department of Transportation has initiated an extensive rule-making process that will result in a host of new regulations governing how oil moves on rail.

In California, the petroleum industry I represent is supporting Assemblyman Roger Dickinson’s measure ( Assembly Bill 380) to ensure local firefighters and emergency responders have the information they need to prepare for and respond to any and all emergencies that might arise.

As a result of the governor signing Senate Bill 861, which expanded fees on crude oil shipments, we are working with the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response to extend California’s excellent marine oil spill program to inland areas to provide the same level of resources, training and responsiveness. And we are working to ensure that the new fees are used where they are needed most – providing equipment and training for local and regional first responders.

Just this week, the Department of Transportation awarded California $1.7 million in federal Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness funds for planning and training to improve emergency response capabilities in California. This is the kind of collaboration and commitment that is taking place to protect communities and public safety.

There is nothing terribly difficult about concocting worst-case stories and inventing scary new terms to describe ordinary transport like those employed in The Bee’s recent coverage of this issue. The hard thing is assessing and managing risks by developing effective strategies to minimize and hopefully eliminate them. That’s how we protect communities and keep our economy thriving.