DAVIS (CBS13) — It’s been a deadly year for the oil and railroad industries as crude oil tankers on North American railways explode in three separate incidents, calling into question what dangers are we willing to accept in our insatiable quest for fuel.
Welcome to North Dakota, where the earth is gushing oil. But the black gold blessing is quickly becoming a shipping curse.
The number of trains carrying crude oils is rapidly expanding, putting residents like Errin Enos of Davis at risk.
“Of course I’m scared, they go right past my house,” he said.
About 1 million barrels of oil a day is being extracted from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota. Getting it from there to refineries in California has created a controversial and dangerous dilemma.
“Frankly, it’s just the odds,” said California state Sen. Beth Jackson. “If we’re transporting more things by rail, it’s just going to happen at some point no matter how we try to be careful.”
Oil industry insiders know about the controversy involving the third-largest refining state.
For the most part, crude oil is transported around the world on ships, through pipelines and by trains. Each of those has risks.
Three accidents involving oil trains have occurred in the last year alone:
July 2013: A train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Quebec, Canada, leveling portions of the town of Lac Megantic and killing 47 people.
December 2013: An oil train collided with a derailed train near Casselton, North Dakota.
April 30: A train loaded with crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia. Some cars burst into flames, others plunged into the James River.
But even shipping has its dangers.
November 2007: A Cosco Busan oil tanker rammed the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay—or less than two rail cars full of oil.
March 1989: The Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Prince William Sound Alaska. Up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil spilled, making it one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.
On land, millions of barrels of crude oil are moved through pipelines and trains. So which is safer?
Juan Acosta represents Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and recently testified at a hearing at the state Capitol.
Even though pipelines are safer, he says, environmental groups strongly oppose building new pipelines, meaning America’s overflowing oil reserves are now hitting the rails.
Crude Spike Means Busy Railways
Railroads have several lines to bring crude oil into California. Many of them converge at refineries in our part of the state in cities like Richmond and Benicia. In the coming years, officials estimate that 25 percent of crude coming into California will arrive on trains.
Cities and towns that line these train tracks are fighting the trend, because there’s a plan to send even more crude oil through Northern California.
That has Davis Mayor Joe Krovoza concerned.
“If those same tracks are going to be be carrying hundreds of thousands of cars of crude oil through Davis every day, that’s absolutely a situation we can’t have in this community,” he said.
The plan would send 82,000 barrels of North Dakota Bakken crude oil on California tracks through Roseville, West Sacramento and Davis on their way to the Valero refinery in Benicia.
Chris Howe is the director of health, safety and environment at the refinery where they convert crude oil into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. They hope to build a special station where they can offload North Dakota’s oil from train cars.
“Today about 80 percent of the crude oil that we process at the refinery comes in by marine tanker,” he said.
Currently, a little more than five percent of oil comes into the state by rail, but that’s almost certain to increase dramatically.
With a record amount of crude oil being extracted from North Dakota and a lack of pipelines to ship it, and with the world’s appetite for oil products increasing in places such as China and India, the oil industry says it’s a basic business principle of supply and demand.
And it’s not just in Benicia. Oil is alreayd being offloaded from rail cars and onto tanker trucks at McClellan Park near Sacramento.
Who Will Pay For Safety?
At a recent hearing at the state Capitol, Lisa Stark testified for Union Pacific, saying safety is a top priority.
“I know we’re very aggressive on safety, so it may not make a huge difference here in California because we already have a very aggressive program here,” she said.
But at that same hearing, emergency responders from a host of state agencies were concerned about their ability to respond to a catastrophe.
“What we did learn is that there really is no preparedness,” said State Sen. Jerry Hill.
He says not only are local emergency crews not prepared, but he says only the railroads are willing to pay to train local firefighters, not oil companies.
“They’re fine with most of what’s being proposed,” he said. “It’s the oil companies who are opposed to any additional fees that would be imposed on crude oil that comes.”
Something Howe doesn’t confirm, but doesn’t deny either.
REPORTER: So you think Union Pacific would be willing to go into some of these smaller communities and offer training?
HOWE: I’ve read their commitment to do that and it’s my understanding …
REPORTER: But it’s not something Valero would be willing to do?
HOWE: I would surely encourage the railroad to help do that.
Living along the tracks, Enos believes more trains filled with explosive crude oil will be rolling by his home in the near future.
“They’re gonna get their way,” he said. “I mean I could talk, talk, talk and it’s not gonna make any difference, I don’t believe.”