RICHMOND -- Tight supplies and rising fuel prices portend a future of increased oil harvests from tough-to-reach North American fields, which will send more crude oil by rail car to Contra Costa County refineries and pose safety and environmental risks to the area, according to industry critics and environmentalists.

"We've got a huge series of new proposals to bring more oil by rail to the Bay Area," said Antonia Juhasz, an oil industry analyst and author of several books about the energy industry. "And regulations and safety plans are totally unprepared for this change."

Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

The warnings came during a Saturday event in Richmond featuring environmental advocates and industry watchers. More than 100 people packed into the Richmond Progressive Alliance's downtown office to hear a series of speakers. The event followed similar presentations in Pittsburg and Martinez last week.

The events were aimed at building popular resistance to a massive proposed project to build a WesPac oil storage and transfer facility in Pittsburg. The $200 million WesPac project would unload an estimated 88 million barrels of domestic and imported crude oil annually delivered by trains and ships to a storage facility on the western edge of town near homes, schools, churches and the Pittsburg Marina.

The project would process domestic crude oil from North Dakota, Colorado, west Texas and New Mexico, crucial components to future fuel production as demand remains high and supplies become harder to access.

"The age of easy oil, if there ever was such a thing, is over," Juhasz said.

George Monterey, a community leader from Pittsburg, said that city has "stopped WesPac in its tracks for the moment," thanks to its decision last month to reopen the public comment period for the draft environmental impact report.

"WesPac is a piece of a bigger puzzle" of more crude coming by rail to the Bay Area, Monterey said.

Art Diefenbach, vice president of engineering for WesPac, did not return a call seeking comment Monday, but WesPac representatives have previously said the project will be safe and include mitigation to address safety and environmental concerns. Supporters say the project will bring jobs and revenues to the city and help refineries meet their future needs at a time when oil production in California is declining.

Some of the Bay Area's five refineries have moved in recent years to increase the flow of crude by rail into the area.

The transition has drawn ire from environmental advocates, who say accidents involving crude being transported by rail are on the rise, and that crude from Canadian tar sands and from flacked shale oil is more volatile and susceptible to explosion.

Juhasz said there were more oil-by-rail accidents in 2013 than any year since 1970, and that the dangers will likely only grow. She urged residents to oppose any proposal that would bring more oil-by-rail traffic into the area.

"It's not supposed to go through your town, period," Juhasz said.

Chevron Corp., which operates the state's second-largest refinery in Richmond, is expected to release an environmental impact report this month for a long-awaited modernization project. Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said in an email Monday that Chevron's modernization is "not at all linked" to the WesPac project, and is not connected to Canadian tar sands or crude by rail.

"We look forward to having an open and transparent process for comment and approval during the environmental review process so that people can see for themselves what this project is about," Ritchie wrote.

Juhasz said Chevron's intent will be revealed in the EIR document.

"The plans from almost every other (area) refinery is to bring in crude by rail," Juhasz said. "Right now, (Chevron) doesn't have anything in writing that says that that's what they intend to do."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.