July 31, 2015

How the West Coast Can Avoid a Tar Sands Train Wreck

It is often said that you can’t keep a good idea down. Unfortunately the same thing applies to bad ones, too. As the prospects for building the Keystone XL pipeline wane, the oil industry is pressing forward with other plans to get their tar sands oil to market. A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, in partnership with NextGen Climate America and ForestEthics entitled “The Tar Sands Threat to the West Coast” reveals that the oil industry hopes to move tar sands oil by rail shipment and pipelines to several refineries or export terminals on the West Coast.

NRDC’s report reflects the growing scientific consensus about the risks posed by tar sands oil. Twenty-seven environmental, public health and community organizations endorsed this report. Thousands have marched and demonstrated to raise awareness about the risks their communities face.


Figure 1- Illustration of risk zones from oil train derailment. I grew up in Sacramento, in a risk zone, all my schools, from preschool to middle school are in risk zones. My highschool is just outside one.

This report takes a detailed and scientifically rigorous look at tar sands oil transportation along the West Coast and concludes that this creates a real, significant and immediate threat. Our infrastructure is not prepared for the strain of heavy unit trains full of oil. The rail car fleet is too dependent on cars that have proven unsafe in the event of a derailment. Rivers and waterways are already stressed and cannot survive a major spill of tar sands oil, which sinks to the bottom of waterways and is particularly difficult to clean up. Once it arrives at a refinery, processing the tar sands product for further shipment exposes nearby communities to pollution, noise, smell and traffic disruption. And our climate cannot accept more carbon pollution from dirty tar sands crude.

The oil industry has tried to tell us that transporting oil is safe, yet In 2013 the oil industry spilled 1.4 million gallons of crude oil in U.S. rail accidents, in 2014 there were 141 separate spills of crude nation-wide. The California Office of Emergency Services reported 182 petroleum-related hazardous material spills (a broader category of spills than those reported in Federal data) in 2013. Despite these distressing safety numbers, the industry wants to double down on rail transport and move tar sands crude to market via the West Coast.

Tar sands oil is a highly problematic fuel source under the best of conditions. It is uniquely dirty and takes massive amounts of energy to remove from the ground, dilute, heat until it flows and finally refine. The process for extracting tar sands oil is devastating to the natural landscape and produces millions of gallons of contaminated water.

The entire business model of the oil industry has been to consolidate returns to a small number of investors and divert risk to the broader population, and this is just the latest effort.

NRDC’s report calls on regulators to tighten safety standards on oil trains by requiring the safest possible cars equipped with state-of-the-art automatic braking systems. It calls for regulators to carefully scrutinize the risks associated with tar sands development and to make sure that first responders are properly equipped to deal with an accident if there is one. It calls for oil companies to better disclose route and timing information to regulators and safety workers, so they can ensure that if a tar sands train must go through, it does so in the safest possible manner.

Most importantly, this report calls for us to move beyond oil, to clean, renewable energy. The best way to make sure the risks of tar sands oil never come to pass is to make sure the oil never leaves the ground in the first place. This means promoting electric vehicles, finding renewable alternative fuels and enhancing fuel economy standards.

California’s climate leadership has been an example for the rest of the country, and the world. Already, the Canadian Province of Quebec has joined our carbon market, and Ontario recently announced it will too. Oregon just passed a Low Carbon Fuel Standard closely modeled on our own. Seven other states have joined us in implementing Zero-Emission Vehicle mandates. But allowing tar sands oil to be transported through our state puts our leadership at risk.

It is time to take action, to reject the expansion of dangerous tar sands oil transportation and processing expansion. Time for meaningful climate leadership like that demonstrated by California Governor Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. It is time for every legislator, regulator and policy maker to take action on climate change. Passing the package of climate bills under consideration in the California legislature will continue the state’s national and international leadership, and would send a clear message to the oil industry that we don’t want or need dirty tar sands oil.

The challenge is real, immediate and powerful. We need a response worthy of it.