Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 in review: Crude-by-rail debate enters fourth year

(Originally published in the 1/1/16 edition)

   As 2016 begins, Valero’s Crude-By-Rail-Project is entering its fourth year of being debated on. The project, which aims to extend three Union Pacific Railroad road tracks onto Valero’s property in Benicia to deliver North American crude oil by train instead of by boat, was publicly announced in Feb. 2013 and was expected to be completed by the end of that year. However, strong opposition by residents and environmental groups triggered a debate that still goes on to this day.
   As 2016 will continue to have more major developments regarding the crude-by-rail project, it is important to understand where the project stands right now, especially with its developments in the last 12 months.
   The biggest news regarding the project was the release of the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR). The first Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) was released in June 2014 to address the environmental and safety concerns that residents had about the project. However, the document was criticized by many, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who felt the report’s focus on the 69 miles of road between Roseville and Benicia did not adequately cover the scope of the project’s impacts. The RDEIR extended its focus to include three new routes: from the Oregon state line to Roseville, the Nevada state line to northern Roseville and the Nevada state line to southern Roseville.
   The RDEIR was expected to be released in June 2015, but delays pushed it back to Aug. 31. The new report, after extending its scope beyond the Roseville/Benicia route, found more “significant and unavoidable” environmental impacts, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, the increase of nitrogen-oxide levels in the Yolo-Solano region and increased threats toward protected wildlife species.
   The release of the report, and the public comment period that followed, resulted in a packed City Hall for its Sept. 29 City Planning Commission meeting, where both supporters and opponents of the project turned up in droves. Supporters of the project argue that it would create temporary jobs in the construction of rails and permanent jobs in the operation of the project, provide $30,000 in tax revenues, operate under current air permits with Bay Area Air Quality Management District and reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East. 
   Meanwhile, opponents of the project contend that the project would increase air pollution, fuel climate change, increase greenhouse gas emissions and would be very dangerous in the event of a train explosion- particularly in the wake of an oil train explosion in Quebec shortly after the project was announced as well as numerous others since. 
   Elsewhere in the year, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Napa) who represents Benicia in the House, co-authored the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act in March to establish safety standards for transporting crude oil by train. Among other things, the bill would aim to make oil train cars more durable and assure that first responders are on hand to handle emergencies. As of press time, the bill has not made it past committee, and government transparency website believes it has a 4 percent chance of being enacted due to it being sponsored by Democrats, the minority party in Congress.
   The Final Environmental Impact Report is expected to be released in early 2016 to respond to comments on both the DEIR and the RDEIR. Amy Million, the principal planner in the Community Development Department, could not be reached for comment.

   For more information on the crude-by-rail project or to read public comments, visit the city of Benicia’s website at

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