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Revealed: Routes for Trains Hauling Volatile Crude Oil in California

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A BNSF train carrying crude oil passes through downtown Sacramento. (Jake Miille/Jake Miille Photography)

A BNSF train carrying crude oil passes through downtown Sacramento. (Jake Miille/Jake Miille Photography)

State officials have released routing information for trains carrying a volatile grade of crude oil through California.

The newly released information reveals that tank cars loaded with oil from the Bakken formation, a volatile crude that has a history of exploding, rumble through downtown Sacramento and through Stockton about once a week. Before they get there, they travel along the Feather River, a major tributary of the Sacramento and a key source of drinking water. They pass through rural Northern California counties — Modoc, Lassen, Placer, Plumas, Yuba and Butte — before reaching their destination in Contra Costa County.

This is the first time that information about the trains’ routing in California and their frequency has been made public. About once a week, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train enters the state from Oregon, headed for the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond. Each train is carrying a million gallons or more of Bakken crude.

“The purpose of the information is really to give first responders better awareness of what’s coming through their counties,” says Kelly Huston, a deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The notifications (shown below) provided by BNSF to the state list the counties through which the trains pass, and the average number of trains per week. They’re retrospective, reporting what’s already happened, rather than looking ahead to what trains could be coming.

“Right now the information, because it’s not very specific, is being used as an awareness tool,” said Huston.

An emergency order issued by the federal Department of Transportation requires railroads to notify emergency responders about large shipments of Bakken crude. BNSF had asked the OES to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which state officials refused to do. After keeping the notifications secret from the public for a few weeks, the state decided to release them on Wednesday, following the lead of other states that had already done so.

“We think it is very important that those responsible for security and emergency planning have such information to ensure that proper planning and training are in place for public safety,” Roxanne Butler, a spokeswoman for BNSF, wrote in an email. “But we also continue to urge discretion in the wider distribution of specific details.”

The DOT issued the order after a series of fiery derailments involving Bakken crude in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia, among other states. Last July, a train carrying oil from the Bakken exploded in a town in Quebec, killing 47 people.

MAP: State officials have confirmed that crude is traveling by rail in the counties shaded gray on the map, below. Also shown are rail lines owned by California’s two major railroads, BNSF and UP, which share some of the lines. Click on the rail lines or counties to see identifying information. Not all lines shown in the shaded areas carry Bakken crude. (Map produced by Lisa Pickoff-White)

California Crude-by-Rail Shipments by KQED News

“We want the rail companies to do everything they can to ensure public safety,” said Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says there are three things that would help assuage her concerns: safer rail cars, slower speed limits, and making sure the trains are always staffed.

Butler said the railroads themselves have also pushed to phase out the DOT-111 railcars that have been involved in the accidents. “The rail industry also implemented a number of additional safety operating practices several months ago to reduce the risk of moving crude by rail,” she wrote, “including lower speed limits and had addressed the train securement issue in August of 2013 as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s emergency order.”

California lawmakers have introduced bills that would provide more money for oil spill response, and require more information from railroads about hazardous materials. The recently-passed California budget includes a fee on oil entering California by rail, which would help fund the state’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. It also provides more money to the California Public Utilities Commission for rail safety inspectors.

Transporting crude oil by rail is a burgeoning business, thanks to an oil boom in North Dakota. In 2013, more than 6 million barrels of crude oil came into California by rail. In 2008, there were none.

California Crude-by-Rail Weekly Tracking

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Davis in the list of cities the trains pass through.

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.
  • ariana

    Please do some radio stories about this on the California Report or other programs! People need to know…

  • Ron Schalow

    North Dakota & Country Prepare for Casualties…Opt Not to Bother Bakken Producers With Silly Request

    North Dakota Bakken producers need to be forced to bring the amount of explosive gases in the crude down to the lowest possible level before shipping it by rail; and the State needs to check the volatility of the oil in each Tanker car before the train wheels turn a full revolution, to ensure it’s been done properly.

    Send the bill to the North Dakota Petroleum Council, and let them divvy up the cost to their members.

    It seems that our politicians, and State officials, are more than willing to put all of the onus on the railroads, the out-dated tankers (new “safer” Model CPC-1232’s cracked open in Lynchburg going 24 mph), and our first responders, without even considering the contents of the tanker cars that keep exploding. Heaven forbid anyone look cross-eyed at the oil industry, and expect them to lift a finger to help limit the death and destruction caused by the next Bakken oil train derailment.
    Are we seriously willing to accept casualties, just so big oil isn’t inconvenienced in any way? So far, yes.

    “The exercise dealt with the derailment and explosion of crude oil train cars in Bismarck and in Fargo, with more than 60 fatalities, said Red Cross Regional Disaster Officer Tom Tezel.” – See more at: http://www.prairiebizmag.com/event/article/id/19629/#sthash.qSU5OimV.dpuf

    The Reid Vapor Pressure of Bakken Crude Oil

    12.0 – Tesoro Corp., a U.S. West Coast refiner, said it has regularly received oil from North Dakota with readings up to 12 (WSJ)

    15.4 – The refining group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), detected Reid vapor pressure levels as high as 15.4 pounds per square inch (absolute) in some samples. (WSJ)

    Huh? – What North Dakota regulators say it is.

    Quantum intends to strip Bakken crude down to a Reid vapor pressure of 6 psi or lower and sell the separated gas liquids, said Russell Smith; Quantum Energy Inc. “All we’re saying is, in making the rule, please consider what’s going in the car in addition to the car itself.” (WSJ)

    “Quantum is fortunate to have a leader of Mr. Kacic’s caliber join our team. Under his leadership, Quantum plans to explore the capturing of refinery generated CO2 to use it for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) throughout the Bakken as well as the stripping of NGLs to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude for safety reasons prior to loading it for transport,” said Stan Wilson, Quantum chairman. (WSJ)

    ###

    “When you bring the vapor pressure down you must remove the NGL’s from the crude. When you do this you reduce the crude volume by about 30%, this means less sales income and more gas going to flare due to the lack of infrastructure in the area. More pollution, less revenue, less taxes. No one local wins with this solution.” –Myron Goforth, president of Dew Point Control LLC. “It’s very easy to stabilize the crude – it just takes money. The producer doesn’t want to pay for it if he can ship it without doing it.” (Reuters)

    ###

    “In the Bakken, you’ve got two choices. You burn it, or you put it into the crude in the railcar. The higher the concentration of light ends, the greater the flammability.” Harry Giles, former manager of crude oil quality programs for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve(Reuters)

    ###

    “The explosions and everything, I didn’t think crude oil did that,” said Ed Pritchard, a former accident investigator with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, regarding Lac-Megantic. He said that in his experience as a railroad inspector, oil companies and shippers do not always examine oil for corrosiveness and explosiveness. “They didn’t test the oil.” (Globe and Mail)

    ###

    There is a good reason why these companies continue to intentionally misclassify Bakken crude. Fines are not a deterrent. Jeffrey Wiese of PHMSA stated as much last year during an industry conference, when he said: “Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No.”

    ###

    “But the reality is that the Bakken crude wouldn’t have this issue if it was handled like the oil from the Eagle Ford formation in Texas. There, the oil producers strip the volatile natural gas liquids (NGLs), also known as “light ends,” from the crude using a piece of equipment known as a stabilizer. They can then capture and sell these natural gas liquids.

    Eagle Ford producers aren’t doing this because they are more concerned about safety than their counterparts in the Bakken region. They are doing it because their crude is transported by pipeline, not rail, and it is a cost of doing business. Unlike the rail industry, the pipeline industry won’t accept crude oil with all of the volatile natural gas liquids still in it.

    Myron Goforth, president of a stabilizer leasing company in Houston, recently explained this to Reuters, saying that “pipeline specifications require certain pressure limits that pretty much force companies to strip out NGLs.” Rail companies have no such requirements.

    “It’s a little like the wild west up in the Bakken, where everybody gets to do what they want to do,” Goforth said. “In the Eagle Ford, you’ve got to play by the rules, which forces the oil companies to treat it differently.”

    Much like the oil industry’s refusal to discontinue using the unsafe DOT-111 rail tank cars to transport Bakken crude in the U.S., the argument against using stabilizers in North Dakota, like they do in Texas, is the same. It would cost too much money, the companies say.” –Justin Mikulka

    How much does it cost to replace a burnt out town and vaporized dead people?